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Water, sanitation, hygiene, and waste management for the COVID-19 virus

3. Keeping water supplies safe

The COVID-19 virus has not been detected in drinking-water supplies, and based on current evidence, the risk to water supplies is low.12 Laboratory studies of surrogate coronaviruses that took place in well-controlled environments indicated that the virus could remain infectious in water contaminated with faeces for days to weeks.10 A number of measures can be taken to improve water safety, starting with protecting the source water; treating water at the point of distribution, collection, or consumption; and ensuring that treated water is safely stored at home in regularly cleaned and covered containers.

Conventional, centralized water treatment methods that use filtration and disinfection should inactivate the COVID-19 virus. Other human coronaviruses have been shown to be sensitive to chlorination and disinfection with ultraviolet (UV) light.13 As enveloped viruses are surrounded by a lipid host cell membrane, which is not robust, the COVID-19 virus is likely to be more sensitive to chlorine and other oxidant disinfection processes than many other viruses, such as coxsackieviruses, which have a protein coat. For effective centralized disinfection, there should be a residual concentration of free chlorine of ≥0.5 mg/L after at least 30 minutes of contact time at pH <8.0.12 A chlorine residual should be maintained throughout the distribution system. Conventional, centralized water treatment methods that use filtration and disinfection should inactivate the COVID-19 virus. Other human coronaviruses have been shown to be sensitive to chlorination and disinfection with ultraviolet (UV) light.13 As enveloped viruses are surrounded by a lipid host cell membrane, which is not robust, the COVID-19 virus is likely to be more sensitive to chlorine and other oxidant disinfection processes than many other viruses, such as coxsackieviruses, which have a protein coat. For effective centralized disinfection, there should be a residual concentration of free chlorine of ≥0.5 mg/L after at least 30 minutes of contact time at pH <8.0.12 A chlorine residual should be maintained throughout the distribution system.

In places where centralized water treatment and safe piped water supplies are not available, a number of household water treatment technologies are effective in removing or destroying viruses, including boiling or using high-performing ultrafiltration or nanomembrane filters, solar irradiation and, in non-turbid waters, UV irradiation and appropriately dosed free chlorine.

4. Safely managing wastewater and faecal waste

There is no evidence that the COVID-19 virus has been transmitted via sewerage systems with or without wastewater treatment. Further, there is no evidence that sewage or wastewater treatment workers contracted the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), which is caused by another type of coronavirus that caused a large outbreak of acute respiratory illness in 2003. As part of an integrated public health policy, wastewater carried in sewerage systems should be treated in well-designed and well-managed centralized wastewater treatment works. Each stage of treatment (as well as retention time and dilution) results in a further reduction of the potential risk. A waste stabilization pond (an oxidation pond or lagoon) is generally considered a practical and simple wastewater treatment technology particularly well suited to destroying pathogens, as relatively long retention times (20 days or longer) combined with sunlight, elevated pH levels, biological activity, and other factors serve to accelerate pathogen destruction. A final disinfection step may be considered if existing wastewater treatment plants are not optimized to remove viruses. Best practices for protecting the health of workers at sanitation treatment facilities should be followed. Workers should wear appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE), which includes protective outerwear, gloves, boots, goggles or a face shield, and a mask; they should perform hand hygiene frequently; and they should avoid touching eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.

WASH in health care settings

Existing recommendations for water, sanitation and hygiene measures in health care settings are important for providing adequate care for patients and protecting patients, staff, and caregivers from infection risks.14 The following actions are particularly important: (i) managing excreta (faeces and urine) safely, including ensuring that no one comes into contact with it and that it is treated and disposed of correctly; (ii) engaging in frequent hand hygiene using appropriate techniques; (iii) implementing regular cleaning and disinfection practices; and (iv) safely managing health care waste. Other important measures include providing sufficient safe drinking-water to staff, caregivers, and patients; ensuring that personal hygiene can be maintained, including hand hygiene, for patients, staff and caregivers; regularly laundering bedsheets and patients’ clothing; providing adequate and accessible toilets (including separate facilities for confirmed and suspected cases of COVID-19 infection); and segregating and safely disposing of health care waste. For details on these recommendations, please refer to Essential environmental health standards in health care.14

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