In buildings closed by virus, stagnant water can become dangerous

Daniel Ackerman May 27, 2020
Heard on: Marketplace Morning Report
Maintenance crews flush toilets and run sinks daily in schools and other closed buildings. George Frey/Getty Images

In buildings closed by virus, stagnant water can become dangerous

Daniel Ackerman May 27, 2020
Maintenance crews flush toilets and run sinks daily in schools and other closed buildings. George Frey/Getty Images

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

Are states ready to roll out COVID-19 vaccines?

Claire Hannan, executive director of the nonprofit Association of Immunization Managers, which represents state health officials, said states have been making good progress in their preparations. And we could have several vaccines pretty soon. But states still need more funding, she said. Hannan doesn’t think a lack of additional funding would hold up distribution initially, but it could cause problems down the road. “It’s really worrisome that Congress may not pass funding or that there’s information circulating saying that states don’t need additional funding,” she said.

How is the service industry dealing with the return of coronavirus restrictions?

Without another round of something like the Paycheck Protection Program, which kept a lot of businesses afloat during the pandemic’s early stages, the outlook is bleak for places like restaurants. Some in the San Francisco Bay Area, for example, only got one week of indoor dining back before cases rose and restrictions went back into effect. Restaurant owners are revamping their business models in an effort to survive while waiting to see if they’ll be able to get more aid.

How are hospitals handling the nationwide surge in COVID-19 cases?

As the pandemic surges and more medical professionals themselves are coming down with COVID, nearly 1 in 5 hospitals in the country report having a critical shortage of staff, according to data from the Department of Health and Human Services. One of the knock-on effects of staff shortages is that people who have other medical needs are being asked to wait.

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