Ebola Waste Concerns Remain After Crisis Has Passed

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Though the Ebola crisis is seemingly over, many are still concerned about the dangers posed by the virus, as there’s no definitive answer as to just how long the virus can live outside the body, which may cause problems regarding the liquid medical waste from Ebola patients.

The world’s top health agencies have strict protocols on the disposal of Ebola patients’ solid waste, and have also provided guidance on Ebola patients’ liquid medical waste.

“The World Health Organization first issued a statement that it was appropriate to dispose of liquid waste from Ebola patients directly in sanitary sewers or pit latrine without any other treatment,” explained Kyle Bibby, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering from the University of Pittsburgh. “And then the Centers for Disease Control in the U.S. followed that guidance and continues to follow that guidance.”

However, many began to question whether these guidelines were adequate, after several people in the U.S. contracted Ebola.

“There was lots of concern from sewage workers about going down into sewers,” explained Bibby. “So the Centers for Disease Control stated that Ebola survives on the order of minutes in water and is almost instantly or very, very rapidly inactivated. And when we looked to the literature we didn’t find any evidence of that.”

Which isn’t to say that the CDC was wrong, just that there’s an apparent lack of evidence backing this particular claim up.

“In the US, the protocol recommended by the CDC was that any patient liquids that were potentially contaminated could be disposed of in the sanitary sewer. What some hospitals did was added bleach to the liquid waste before disposing of it, which would help inactivate the virus,” says Joe Delloiacovo, Executive Vice President for Medassure Services. “Adding bleach to the waste will certainly alleviate any concerns regarding whether or not the virus is still active.”

Ebola is an enveloped virus, which means that it has a membrane or wrapping that actually comes from an infected cell. Enveloped viruses don’t do well when exposed to liquids, which is likely why the CDC provided that particular piece of guidance.

In order to find a more solid, evidence-based solution, the National Science Foundation has awarded researchers with a $100,000 grant to study the issue. The researchers will use viruses that are physically similar to Ebola, and will test their ability to survive in water and waste water.

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