EP Committee Seeks Long-Term Plan for Tracing COVID-19 in NYC Sewage

October 28, 2020

ASTORIA – The New York City Council Committee on Environmental Protection on October 26 heard testimony on a pilot program to study wastewater for the coronavirus strain that causes COVID-19 and another that would rein in a major source of sewage backups.

“COVID-19 will sadly remain a risk to New Yorkers for years to come, so we must employ every resource possible to find an outbreak before it happens,” said Council Member Costa Constantinides, Chair of the Committee on Environmental Protection. “The legislation we heard today will codify ongoing City efforts, so DEP staff has the resources it deserves to protect New Yorkers from another wave of COVID-19.”

"New Yorkers may be surprised to learn that despite being branded as 'flushable', baby wipes are a large contributor to sewer blockage in New York City," said Council Member Antonio Reynoso. "My bill, Intro 244, would allow retailers to sell only DEP approved baby wipes. This will help to avoid blockage of sewers, making our communities cleaner and saving the City money."

“The more that we know about COVID-19, the better. Tracing its presence in wastewater will help officials target the spread and act accordingly,” said Council Member Keith Powers. “This is one creative way for New York City to stay ahead of the virus in the months ahead.”

 “As we experience localized surges in COVID-19, it’s never been more important to find innovative ways to detect the presence of the virus, such as through wastewater testing,” said Manhattan Borough President Gale A. Brewer. “I commend Council Member Costa Constantinides for his leadership on this bill, which codifies existing efforts by the Department of Environmental Protection in using sewage testing as an early warning system for COVID-19, which I first called for in May. Sewage testing could potentially signal which communities are experiencing surges in COVID-19 infections well before hospitals and healthcare providers are able to detect them.”

"We have already proven that Covid-19 clusters could be prevented by testing a population's sewage," said Council Member Ben Kallos. "Implementing simple yet effective ways like this one meant to protect against the spread of this virus is the only way we will get ahead of it. We should not waste any more time and pass Intro. 1966 as our country is headed for what could be a third wave of Covid-19 during this winter."

The Committee today discussed Intro. 1966, which would create a Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) pilot program to study wastewater for COVID-19 RNA. Done in consultation with the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH), this would help the City detect new waves of the virus before they spread too far.

Experts have found the strain, officially SARS-CoV-2, can appear in a person’s feces even before they are symptomatic. This has been an effective tool in tracing a cluster or new outbreak before it gets worse. Health officials, for instance, have called on Massachusetts leaders to ramp up containment measures after a Greater Boston treatment plant showed an uptick in traces of the virus. Several New York State high education facilities have relied on testing at its dorm facilities to catch outbreaks.

DEP began to test wastewater for SARS-CoV-2 in the spring in partnership with DOHMH and leading institutions across the country. Intro. 1966 will help solidify and expand those efforts, as the United States is now expected to feel the effects of COVID-19 well into 2022. It will also add a degree of built-in transparency by requiring the agencies to report the findings of wastewater testing in a timely manner.

The Committee also heard testimony in favor of a Intro. 244, introduced by Council Member Antonio Reynoso, which would regulate “flushable” wipes. Despite their branding, these nonwoven material often clog sewers to create “fatbergs” — a collection of nonbiodegradable material, grease, and other hazardous waste. This bill would ensure retailers cannot sell these products unless they meet DEP-approved standards.


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