Tracking COVID-19 through the sewer

We’re over six months into the COVID-19 pandemic and there still seems to be more we don’t know about its presence in society than we do know. Now what?

To find answers, Ted Smith is getting down in the gutter or, more specifically, the sewer. At the Center for Healthy Air, Water and Soil at the University of Louisville Envirome Institute, where he is director, they look for what we collectively shed into the municipal sewer system. “This is a great leap forward, to leave the individual gut and look at the collective gut, which is essentially what the sanitary sewer system is,” Smith says.

The term “envirome” is styled after the broader “omic” revolution that looks at human health as a series of broad layers, like our genome or our cumulative exposure to medical imaging. “It certainly makes sense that most of us don’t know what [envirome] means because we did make up the word,” says Smith. “[But] if you know the genome, you’re going to love the envirome: We turn outward, beyond the sack of chemicals that we are, looking at the role the environment pays in keeping us well or making us sick.”

The omic revolution layers

The “omic” view of health has many layers, from our metabolism to our social graph. The envirome looks at the physical environment that surrounds those layers of influence on a person’s health.

European Respiratory Review

But where many omic techniques are about an increasingly precise look at an individual’s health, enviromics seeks broad answers about population wellness. 

Wastewater-based epidemiology and sewage chemical information mining, as sewage analyses for health are often known, are rather new fields, but Smith says they are gaining credibility fast. “The big surprise was published a few months ago out of Yale University where they were able to count copies of the COVID virus that accurately corresponded to the number of infections the community would see seven days later,” says Smith. “Many in the world took note.”

Ted Smith described many more facets of the envirome and sewer-centric COVID-19 tracing in his talk with CNET’s Brian Cooley. See the entire concise interview in the video above. 


Now What is a video interview series with industry leaders, celebrities and influencers that covers trends impacting businesses and consumers amid the “new normal.” There will always be change in our world, and we’ll be here to discuss how to navigate it all.   

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.

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