Has COVID increased water pollution?

COVID-19 outbreak affected almost all countries infected more than 460 million people, of which approximately 6 million died. More than half of the world’s population experienced a lockdown, which led to unprecedented reductions in economic activity. Apart from the interrupted human activities including but not limited to transportation and travel (water, air, road), commercial activities (fishing, etc.), the industrial sector (limited production, operations), agricultural practices, and social activities (eating, shopping, gathering, etc.), the environmental consequences and positive aspect of COVID have also been a focus of some researchers (1,2).

I am a senior researcher at York University Toronto, Canada. I hold a Bachelor’s, a Master’s degree in pharmaceutical sciences from India and a Ph.D. in Water Science from University du Quebec. My research interest lies in monitoring contaminants of emerging concern (CEC) in water sources and their removal. My specific research area includes validating and developing analytical methods for environmental matrices, chemical/biodegradation of contaminants, and waste management. During COVID, I became interested in its effect on water pollution, and I am pleased to share my finding on World Water Day.

Several published reports investigated the effect of the pandemic on surface water quality and observed a significant improvement in the Water Quality Index of Rivers (3,4). The reduced agricultural and industrial activities are mainly responsible for improved water quality in developing counties, resulting in less surface water run-off and discharge of wastewater. Furthermore, restricted water travel and activity contributed to the enhanced water quality index by reducing the oil spillage incidents and marine disruption due to less fishing and noise pollution from ships.

On the other hand, the pandemic has forced healthcare workers and the public to use face masks made from plastics. Their disposal was not regulated or monitored, leading to an environmental footprint. These masks can reach surface water and potentially affect the downstream environment. The water quality reports highlighted those anthropogenic activities that affected the quality and quantity of water sources as critical drivers (4,5). The improvement in the air quality trend (for example, declining ambient concentrations of NO2, O3, and particulate matter2.5) was similar to that of water quality. Further, a significant reduction in solid and water waste (sludge/landfill) during the pandemic led to less soil pollution (6). Exploring the pandemic effect on the possible exchange of persistent pollutants across the air-water-soil interface has given a new direction of the mutual dependence of all environmental compartments.

Interestingly, wastewaters related to surface water pollution gained tremendous attention during the pandemic due to the presence of the COVID-19 virus and its potential propagation and infection through water sources (7). Numerous studies highlighted the importance of the COVID-19 tracing in wastewater samples and found a positive correlation with the hike in infection rates. This led to sensitive methods for accurate monitoring of the virus in wastewater/water samples (8). There is also a correlation between the COVID data in wastewater and infection rates used for the early detection of infection/ virus mutations (9). Some countries implemented strict rules to curb the infection rates in wastewater surveillance (10). However, no articles were published focusing on the change in the influent load for wastewater treatment plants and their treatment efficiency during the pandemic. In addition, restriction of wastewater influent and effluent sampling during the peak pandemic led to a lack of real-time data recording on contaminants of emerging concern (CEC).

Moreover, during the pandemic, health units were mainly focused on controlling the COVID crisis, which took its toll on wastewater. Importantly, the overuse of antibiotics amid COVID infection might have increased their residual levels in the environment (11). In addition, people have gone through different health situations like depression, loneliness, stress, anxiety, etc., named COVID, which might have increased the over-the-counter drug usage, such as disinfectant agents, pain killers, etc. and consequently their residual load on wastewater. On the other hand, the closure of restaurants, shopping malls, hotels, and reduced industrial activities has shown a decrease in wastewater discharge, leading to less water pollution. This was explicitly witnessed in highly urbanized areas with massive population and industrial activities (12).

Surprisingly, the steep slowdown in human activity led to a significant environmental recovery which could not have been achieved by simply implying existing regulations or restrictions in the water and air sectors. Now, its time to take advantage of this opened window and sustain the improved water quality through the recently innovated research methods (13,14). We are all aware of the importance of water treatment and its sustainability for having a healthy ecosystem. Hopefully, we will reduce our footprint in the environment that we have been polluting for decades unprecedently with releasing chemical compounds in the post-pandemic era.  

Rama Pulicharla
Department of Civil Engineering, Lassonde School of Engineering, York University, North York, Toronto, Ontario, M3J 1P3, Canada, ramapuli@yorku.ca

References:

1. Loh, H. C., Looi, I., Ch’ng, A. S. H., Goh, K. W., Ming, L. C., & Ang, K. H. (2021). Positive global environmental impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown: a review. GeoJournal, 1-13.
2. Mousazadeh, M., Paital, B., Naghdali, Z., Mortezania, Z., Hashemi, M., Karamati Niaragh, E., Aghababaei, M., Ghorbankhani, M., Lichtfouse, E., Sillanpää, M.  (2021). Positive environmental effects of the coronavirus 2020 episode: a review. Environment, Development and Sustainability23(9), 12738-12760.
3. Liu, D., Yang, H., Thompson, J. R., Li, J., Loiselle, S., & Duan, H. (2022). COVID-19 lockdown improved river water quality in China. Science of The Total Environment802, 149585.
4. Najah, A., Teo, F. Y., Chow, M. F., Huang, Y. F., Latif, S. D., Abdullah, S., Ismail, M. & El-Shafie, A. (2021). Surface water quality status and prediction during movement control operation order under COVID-19 pandemic: Case studies in Malaysia. International Journal of Environmental Science and Technology18(4), 1009-1018.
5. Sarkar, S., Roy, A., Bhattacharjee, S., Shit, P. K., & Bera, B. (2021). Effects of COVID-19 lockdown and unlock on the health of Bhutan-India-Bangladesh transboundary rivers. Journal of Hazardous Materials Advances4, 100030.
6. Loh, H. C., Looi, I., Ch’ng, A. S. H., Goh, K. W., Ming, L. C., & Ang, K. H. (2021). Positive global environmental impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown: a review. GeoJournal, 1-13.
7. Godini, H., Hoseinzadeh, E., & Hossini, H. (2021). Water and wastewater as potential sources of SARS-CoV-2 transmission: a systematic review. Reviews on environmental health.
8. Pulicharla, R., Kaur, G., & Brar, S. K. (2021). A year into the COVID-19 pandemic: Rethinking of wastewater monitoring as a preemptive approach. Journal of Environmental Chemical Engineering9(5), 106063.
9. Fernandez-Cassi, X., Scheidegger, A., Bänziger, C., Cariti, F., Corzon, A. T., Ganesanandamoorthy, P., Lemaitre, J. C., Ort, C.; Julian, T. R., & Kohn, T. (2021). Wastewater monitoring outperforms case numbers as a tool to track COVID-19 incidence dynamics when test positivity rates are high. Water research200, 117252.
10. Panchal, D., Prakash, O., Bobde, P., & Pal, S. (2021). SARS-CoV-2: sewage surveillance as an early warning system and challenges in developing countries. Environmental Science and Pollution Research28(18), 22221-22240.
11. Miranda, C., Silva, V., Capita, R., Alonso-Calleja, C., Igrejas, G., & Poeta, P. (2020). Implications of antibiotics use during the COVID-19 pandemic: present and future. Journal of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy75(12), 3413-3416.
12. Chowdhuri, I., Pal, S. C., Arabameri, A., Ngo, P. T. T., Roy, P., Saha, A., A., Ghosh, M., & Chakrabortty, R. (2022). Have any effect of COVID-19 lockdown on environmental sustainability? A study from most polluted metropolitan area of India. Stochastic Environmental Research and Risk Assessment36(1), 283-295.
13. van Vliet, M. T., Jones, E. R., Flörke, M., Franssen, W. H., Hanasaki, N., Wada, Y., & Yearsley, J. R. (2021). Global water scarcity including surface water quality and expansions of clean water technologies. Environmental Research Letters16(2), 024020.
14. Carey, C. C., Woelmer, W. M., Lofton, M. E., Figueiredo, R. J., Bookout, B. J., Corrigan, R. S., Daneshmand, V., Hounshell, A. G., Howard, D. W., & Thomas, R. Q. (2021). Advancing lake and reservoir water quality management with near-term, iterative ecological forecasting. Inland Waters, 1-14.

Published by Frances O.

PhD Candidate at Ryerson University

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