Wastewater Provides Early Warning System

As universities all over the country began scrambling to figure out what campus life would be like in a year of COVID-19, several Clemson professors got busy on parts of that puzzle that related to their own research.

One of those professors was David Freedman, chair of the University’s Department of Envionmental Engineering and Earth Sciences. In the spring of 2020, Freedman began testing coronavirus levels in wastewater on the University’s main campus and in the surrounding community to provide an early warning system that shows how fast the virus is spreading.

Freedman likened the tests to the “canary in the coal mine” that can help administrators make informed decisions about what they need to do to protect the public’s health even before COVID-19 case counts start to rise. In addition to campus, his testing covers the city of Clemson and the town of Pendleton, both home to many University students, faculty and staff.

 

Studies have shown that the virus starts showing up in wastewater as much as one to two weeks before clinical symptoms are reported.

 

Clemson City Council unanimously passed an ordinance on June 24 that mandated face coverings after Freedman found surprisingly high virus levels at the city’s Cochran Road wastewater treatment plant. The ordinance cited “elevated levels of virus in the community similar to levels in other cities in which an outbreak of the virus was about to occur or was well underway.”

Previous studies first done in Europe have shown that the virus starts showing up in wastewater as much as one to two weeks before clinical symptoms are reported, said Freedman.

“Even before people are coughing and getting a fever, they’ll start shedding the virus in their feces, and that will show up in the wastewater,” Freedman said. Once or twice a week, Freedman collects wastewater samples from one campus plant and two municipal plants and sends them to a lab in Tennessee. Results from the testing are posted on both the city and the University websites.

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