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UNC Receives NSF Funding to Study Ebola in Sewage

One manifestation of having the Ebola virus – severe diarrhea – is causing a new potential hazard for sewer workers and others who may come in contact with the fecal waste.

[Photo: Dr. Mark Sobsey demonstrates his award-winning compartment bag water quality test (CBT), a quick and accurate field test for E. coli in drinking water. Photo by Mr. Dan Sears.]

A new University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill study, led by the Gillings School of Global Public Health’s Dr. Mark Sobsey, Kenan Distinguished Professor of environmental sciences and engineering, will focus upon that important public health issue.

Dr. Sobsey’s study, which received $120,420 from the National Science Foundation, is titled “RAPID:  Onsite Disinfection and Survival of Ebola and Other Viruses in Human Fecal Wastes and Sewage”.

“We really don’t know how long the virus survives in fecal wastes and sewage and how it can best be inactivated or killed by chemical disinfection methods,” Dr. Sobsey said. “It is those questions that this project will attempt to answer through this new research.”

The study involves batch laboratory-scale experiments to quantify and characterize the rate and extent of inactivation of a mutant Ebola strain in feces and raw sewage. The mutant Ebola strain will be studied in collaboration with colleagues at the University of Wisconsin who developed it. Samples will be tested at 37° C and a room temperature of approximately 23° C under both aerobic and anaerobic conditions.

The researchers also will determine the rate and extent of inactivation of viruses in feces and raw sewage by batch disinfection with different doses of the disinfectants free chlorine, two quaternary ammonium compounds, peracetic acid, lime (calcium hydroxide), a phenolic compound and an anionic detergent.

The study will use a genetically modified Ebola virus strain that is not infectious for humans or animals, as well as surrogate and indicator viruses, to determine the effectiveness of treatments.

“The results of this study will make it possible to design and implement effective onsite management systems and protocols in health care and other settings to reduce the risks of the spread of Ebola virus from people sick with this disease via their feces and sewage,” Dr. Sobsey said. “This is especially important for people who work with sewage systems or who come in contact with this waste before it reaches a sewage treatment plant.”

The study gets underway this month. Dr. Sobsey hopes recommendations based on the results will be available within a year.

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