You can tell a lot about someone from their waste. Cases have been fought all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court over whether someone’s trash is fair game for law enforcement searches. History is rife with reports of people finding treasures ranging from winning lotto tickets to rare paintings and artifacts to actual money or gold in the waste of others.
Last fall, an ancient bust of the Greek god Hermes was found in a sewer in Athens. People, animals — not just gators — jewelry and more have been found in sewers around the world. In 2014, an entire car was found in a sewer connected to the Thames River in London. To be fair, it was a Mini.
Closer to home, Keene wastewater technicians have reported finding baby wipes in the city’s sewers — so many of them that it’s become a hindrance to the operation of the city’s treatment plant. In a 2017 report, officials indicated as much as 1,000 lbs. of sludge in the sewers might be due to so-called “flushable” wipes. And the problem was only worsening.
But there are other things in the sewage the city treats. Energy, phosphorus and cellulose are extracted in some places, used in fertilizers, feedstock and plastics manufacturing. It turns out, what’s found in waste can become quite valuable commodities.
And perhaps, during the current global pandemic, no commodity is more valuable than information. In Keene, waste running beneath the campus of Keene State College is providing very valuable information indeed.
Since last fall, the sewage there, and at another location in the city, has been tested for the novel coronavirus. The idea was to set a baseline for the presence of the virus, and use that to trace whether it was increasing or decreasing on the campus and in surrounding city areas.
The hope was to catch spikes before they spread too wide. In such cases, testing and contact tracing could be stepped up to try to keep a lid on the spread of the virus.
The college provided most of the funding. City wastewater workers collected the samples. Throughout the school year, the tests reflected what health and college officials were seeing at the school and in the city, from the spike after the holidays and through the winter, to the decline of cases in the spring — even the arrival of variants of the virus first detected overseas.
And in June, the testing showed little to no trace of any of the virus versions.
“It’s a composite look of SARS-CoV-2 in our population, and it really supports the case rates that we are seeing,” said Jeanelle Boyer, a professor of public health at the college who’s heading Keene State’s response team.
Though the 2020-21 school year has ended and on-campus activity is minimal, the testing will continue. And that’s good, because despite the low number of daily cases in the state and the corresponding sewage-test results, the pandemic could again swell here, as it has been doing in some states where vaccination rates are lower.
Given the expectation of many that the worst has passed, and the loosening of travel and social-distancing restrictions, a spike in cases could well be underway before it’s evident from hospitalizations. The information available from the sewage testing could yet provide a needed leg up.