In buildings closed by virus, stagnant water can become dangerous
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With restaurants, stadiums and schools closed down, there is a lot of water idling in plumbing systems right now. Scientists say that’s not a healthy state of affairs. Stagnant water can accumulate heavy metals and harmful bacteria — like the kind that causes sometimes-fatal Legionnaire’s disease.
The Environmental Protection Agency has issued guidance on how shuttered facilities can safeguard their water systems — for whenever people return.
So, which water systems are at risk?
“All of them,” said Caitlin Proctor, a microbiologist at Purdue University. “Any building that has had less water use than normal is going to have some sort of water quality deterioration.”
Proctor co-authored a report raising concerns about lead and copper buildup. But she’s especially worried about certain kinds of bacteria — with fancy scientific names.
“These include Legionella pneumophila, Mycobacterium avium,” she said.
One way to kill off bad bugs is “shock disinfection.” That’s when an engineer floods the pipes with a boatload of bleach before people start using the water again. But that can cost tens of thousands of dollars per building. Proctor said there’s a cheaper alternative.
“The best way to prevent these kind of issues is to keep the water moving,” she said.
With people gone, keep the taps — and other plumbing fixtures — on. Simple enough for a stand-alone office building, but what if you run, say, a massive university campus with a marathon’s length of water pipe and north of 100 buildings? Can you really keep all those toilets flushing?
“Actually, we are,” said Gary Rudolph, senior utilities manager at the University of Central Florida. Usually, campus plumbing serves 40,000 students. But now, things are sort of quiet, Rudolph said. With no students, letting the water run is a full-time job. Maintenance crews visit each building every other week.
They’re “making sure all the urinals are flushed, the toilets are flushed [and] the faucets are run,” Rudolph said. It’s essential work that costs $1,300 a day in labor. But Rudolph said the empty school is using water at two-thirds its normal rate. “If there’s any showers in the building, we run those.”
While it is resources going down the drain, he hopes it will save the university from having to pay for shock disinfection down the line.
“And when people come back to campus, it will be just normal,” Rudolph said. “You just come back, take a shower, drink the water. Do whatever you normally do when they were here before.”
There’s still no word on when students will be back to do the flushing.
COVID-19 Economy FAQs
Millions of Americans are unemployed, but businesses say they are having trouble hiring. Why?
This economic crisis is unusual compared to traditional recessions, according to Daniel Zhao, senior economist with Glassdoor. “Many workers are still sitting out of the labor force because of health concerns or child care needs, and that makes it tough to find workers regardless of what you’re doing with wages or benefits,” Zhao said. “An extra dollar an hour isn’t going to make a cashier with preexisting conditions feel that it’s safe to return to work.” This can be seen in the restaurant industry: Some workers have quit or are reluctant to apply because of COVID-19 concerns, low pay, meager benefits and the stress that comes with a fast-paced, demanding job. Restaurants have been willing to offer signing bonuses and temporary wage increases. One McDonald’s is even paying people $50 just to interview.
Could waiving patents increase the global supply of COVID-19 vaccines?
India and South Africa have introduced a proposal to temporarily suspend patents on COVID-19 vaccines. Backers of the plan say it would increase the supply of vaccines around the world by allowing more countries to produce them. Skeptics say it’s not that simple. There’s now enough supply in the U.S that any adult who wants a shot should be able to get one soon. That reality is years away for most other countries. More than 100 countries have backed the proposal to temporarily waive COVID-19 vaccine patents. The U.S isn’t one of them, but the White House has said it’s considering the idea.
Can businesses deny you entry if you don’t have a vaccine passport?
As more Americans get vaccinated against COVID-19 and the economy begins reopening, some businesses are requiring proof of vaccination to enter their premises. The concept of a vaccine passport has raised ethical questions about data privacy and potential discrimination against the unvaccinated. However, legal experts say businesses have the right to deny entrance to those who can’t show proof.
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