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Quantitative microbial risk assessment (QMRA) of occupational exposure to SARS-CoV-2 in wastewater treatment plants


The current global Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome- Coronavirus-2 (SARS-CoV-2) epidemic has heightened calls for studies to evaluate respiratory exposure for wastewater treatment workers. In this global first study, we assess occupational health risks to wastewater treatment plant (WWTP) operators from inhalation of aerosolized SARS-CoV-2 using a Quantitative Microbiological Risk Assessment (QMRA) framework. The following considerations were used to develop the QMRA and assess the illness risks to workers: a) the proportion of the population who are infected and thus responsible for shedding SARS-CoV-2 into raw wastewater; b) the concentration of SARS-CoV-2 in raw and treated wastewater; c) the volume of aerosolized water inhaled by a WWTP operator during work; d) humidity and temperature-dependent viability of coronaviruses in aerosolized waste water; e) estimation of the amount, frequency, and duration of exposure; and f) exposure doses. The variables were then fed into an exponential dose response model to estimate the risks in three scenarios representing low-grade, moderate and aggressive outbreaks. These scenarios were designed on the assumption of 0.03%, 0.3% and 3% of the wastewater-generating population being infected with SARS-CoV-2. In terms of averaged-out illness risk profiles, the individual illness risks for low grade, moderate and aggressive outbreak scenarios respectively are 0.036, 0.32 and 3.21 illness cases per 1000 exposed WWTP operators. Our study suggests that the risk of accidental occupational exposure to SARS-CoV-2 in raw wastewater, via inhalation at the WWTP environment, is negligible, particularly when less than 0.3% of the population served by the plant are actively infected.

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