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What you need to know about COVID-19 and plumbing

Germs illustration

What you need to know about COVID-19 and plumbing

In light of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic and its arrival in South Africa, the Plumbing Industry Registration Board (PIRB) dug a little deeper into some of the questions licensed plumbers might have with regard to the virus and work on wastewater and sewer systems.

This comes after it was reported that COVID-19 can be spread through wastewater and sewer systems when the Chinese government identified an outbreak in a Hong Kong high-rise building a few weeks ago.

Can the COVID-19 coronavirus be spread through high-rise buildings and its wastewater systems?

Contractor reported that it is important to at least have some very basic knowledge of how wastewater systems work in high-rise buildings and to also look back at the SARS outbreak of 2003 because the parallels are striking.

In fact, the SARS virus is also a strain of coronavirus, so it’s not surprising that COVID-19 has been identified as having the potential to spread through plumbing systems.

High-rise buildings present unique challenges in plumbing design. The following simplified explanation is intended to help illustrate the problem: When toilets in high-rise buildings are flushed, faecal matter and wastewater are discharged into a vertical wastewater pipe, called a “drainage stack.”

As the wastewater descends in the stack, it creates pressure changes within the pipe. The wastewater flowing down a stack will push air down ahead of it and drag air behind it, creating both positive and negative pressures within the drainage system.

These pressures can affect trap seals by either siphoning the water or pushing the water out of the trap. A second vertical pipe called a “vent stack,” typically runs parallel to the drainage stack and introduces air into the drainage stack every fifth floor to avert excessive changes that could deplete trap seals and allow contaminated air and aerosols to enter apartments on other floors.

Protecting the health of the nation

“Both the SARS and the current COVID-19 coronavirus outbreaks in Hong Kong illustrate the importance of proper plumbing design and practice in keeping building residents safe from disease and the profound problems that can develop when unqualified individuals decide to work on building water systems. The axiom “the plumber protects the health of the nation” is more than a slogan. Improper deviations to building plumbing systems can, and indeed often do, result in very significant loss of life and property.”

Read more over here: How did the outbreak occur in Hong Kong and is there a risk in the U.S.?

Taking precautions

It is said that taking careful precautions to prevent contact with wastewater and proper hand and arm hygiene is a matter of good practice for all plumbers.

Regarding COVID-19, it is important to consider the risk of working on a wastewater system to be consistent with that of a healthcare worker who is treating patients.

See the link below for more information on proper hand cleaning recommendations from the United States’ Center for Disease Control and Prevention and remember to wear surgical masks and eye protection when working on wastewater systems.

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