MIT Wastewater Monitoring Could Be Public Health Measure of the Future

A pilot program being run by MIT, the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC) and the City of Chelsea could help public health officials get an early, pinpointed lead on COVID-19 outbreaks simply by checking what’s been flushed down the toilet.

Though it sounds like gross business, the pilot program piggy-backs on a program run by the MWRA where they analyze wastewater at Deer Island for the whole system and have learned that they can predict surges in COVID-19 several days before positive tests start showing up. That is because the virus – like all other viruses – travels through human waste and shows up at treatment facilities before it shows up in hospitals. By detecting a large surges at Deer Island in virus content, the MWRA is able to help public health officials prepare for a likely surge in cases. One of the limits of the program is that it can only tell broadly that surges are coming, and cannot give any details about where those surges might be clustered.

Now Chelsea is running a similar program, but drilled down to the neighborhood level so that those analyzing the waste water can find out if a specific neighborhood is experiencing a surge in COVID-19, or any other virus.

The program in Chelsea is purely for informational purposes, and MIT, MAPC, an analysis lab and the City of Chelsea DPW are partnering on it. The program started in the second week of November, and right now they have two locations where they are monitoring waste water.

Those locations are:

•Marginal and Pearls Streets.

•Crescent and Eastern Avenue.

City Manager Tom Ambrosino said those two locations account for 25 percent of the City’s total wastewater flows. They are hoping to add two more locations very soon that would boost their analysis to 40 percent of the city. The program is funded and carried out by MIT.

While the program has very real benefits for the purpose of public health monitoring in the COVID-19 fight, Ambrosino said such an expanded program could have long-term public health benefits.

“Long-term, if this infrastructure is kept beyond COVID-19, it’s the kind of infrastructure that could warn the City early of the spread of other viruses and the City could respond more quickly than currently possible,” he said.

City Councillor Leo Robinson said he was very interested in the program on Monday night at the Council meeting, and asked to be updated frequently on the matter.

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