How our sewage could warn us of future outbreaks of COVID-19

Jul 6, 2020

TACOMA — Down a gravel pathway, past a scattering of needle caps and food wrappers and beneath a graffiti-sprayed overpass for Tacoma’s East 32nd Street, lies a portal into the public’s health.

For millennia, sewer systems have carried off waste and disease. More recently, they’ve drawn coronavirus-searching scientists in their wake.

On a Friday last month, Chad Atkinson, a senior environmental technician for Tacoma, lifted up a maintenance hole cover with a metal hook.

The stench of decomposition pricked the nostrils as a flashlight beam illuminated a stream of untreated wastewater flowing past globs of fatty muck below. The waste of some 17,000 Tacoma residents drains through this site, including sewage from several retirement communities and the nearby Emerald Queen Casino.

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