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Coronavirus might be able to survive in water

Published May 4th, 2020 1:09PM EDT
coronavirus water
Image: Jeff Chiu/AP/Shutterstock

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  • Research has shown that coronavirus can survive in water for an extended period of time, but that doesn’t mean it poses a threat to the average person.
  • No traces of the novel coronavirus have been found in water supplies in the United States, according to the EPA.
  • Sewage treatment workers may be at heightened risk, but the measures they already use to protect themselves from viruses and bacteria should stop this virus as well.
  • Visit BGR’s homepage for more stories.

We all know by now that the primary route of transmission of the novel coronavirus is through the air. Droplets that an infected person exhales, coughs, or sneezes out can carry the virus. A healthy person who breathes those droplets in, or touches a contaminated surface and then rubs their eyes, nose, or mouth can easily become infected. But what happens when the virus enters the water?

Reliable studies on the new coronavirus and its interaction with water are scarce (well, non-existent might be a better term), but as Forbes points out, there are a few things we know about how similar viruses deal with water, and research into coronavirus concentrations in sewage give us a rough idea of how dangerous this route of transmission truly is.

A study published in Water Research over a decade ago focused on SARS, a disease caused by a different type of coronavirus, and two “surrogate” coronaviruses in order to determine how long they can survive in water. What the researchers determined was that the viruses still packed a punch even after being in water and sewage for “days to weeks.”

That on its own sounds quite frightening, but the key here is that the water or sewage containing the virus isn’t necessarily dangerous on its own. It’s when those liquids become aerosolized that they then pose a risk to the public.

Additionally, the actual number of viruses in any given water source plays a big role in whether or not new infections are even possible. An infected person taking a swim in a pool doesn’t mean that pool is now a coronavirus hot spot, especially if it’s been properly chlorinated, which will kill the virus outright.

This also doesn’t mean that we should be overly concerned about our water supplies. The EPA issued guidance stating that the risk to water supplies is low and that there’s no reason to believe that drinking water can serve as a route of transmission. Thus far, the virus hasn’t been detected in drinking water supplies anyway, so that fear is double-debunked.

Those who face the biggest possible risk of coronavirus infection via water sources are those who work with sewage, which has been shown to contain the virus in areas where infected people reside. The CDC notes that “standard practices” that wastewater treatment workers already use should be enough to protect them from infection, but that assumes that workers are following those rules, to begin with.

In any case, if you’ve been boiling your tap water or drinking only bottled water because you fear it might somehow infect you, there’s no evidence that doing so is helpful.