Emissions up when wastewater plant catch cold

Autumn is here, and the season for colds and flu has arrived when viruses spread through schools, workplaces, and public spaces. But it’s not only humans that can catch a cold. A recently published paper shows that bacteria in wastewater treatment plants can also catch a cold.

Autumn is here, and the season for colds and flu has arrived. But it’s not only humans that can catch a cold. A recently published paper shows that bacteria in wastewater treatment plants can also catch a cold.

​In wastewater treatment plants, the work is often done by bacteria. They carry out biological processes to break down the pollutants and purify the water. Like bacteria, viruses are everywhere around us, and the fact is that viruses can infect bacteria just like other living things. Oskar Modin, Professor at the Water Environment Technology Division, Department of Architecture and Civil Engineering, has tested the thesis that a wastewater treatment plant can catch a cold.

“A large treatment plant has billions of bacteria that work in a treatment process called activated sludge. The bacterial communities are constantly exposed to viruses that infect them. We asked ourselves whether the process can periodically be more exposed and what happens then,” said Modin.

Connection between virus and emissions in wastewater treatment plants

They measured the concentration of virus particles released from four different wastewater treatment plants in Sweden. The researchers compared it with how much organic carbon was released simultaneously.

“When they measured virus particles in the water, we found a connection between viruses and organic carbon. When there were more viruses, there was also more organic carbon in the outgoing water,” said Modin.

Important to control the biological processes in wastewater treatment plants

Removal of dissolved organic carbon from wastewater is essential as it would otherwise lead to increased oxygen consumption where the purified water is discharged, affecting the aquatic environment nearby. The fact that the treatment plant’s smallest workers can catch a cold and, as a result, perform worse is essential to investigate further. Not least to prevent or relieve the symptoms and thereby maximise the effectiveness of the bacteria. But tea with honey or home remedies with ginger and lemon won’t do when it comes to bacteria.

“Viruses often specialise in a specific species, meaning that the same virus cannot infect humans and bacteria. One possible way to influence the number of viruses in treatment plants could be to adjust how the treatment plant operates. We saw differences between the treatment plants in the study. We believe may be related to the design or control of the biological treatment processes,” said Modin.

Researchers do not yet know exactly how the cold manifests itself in the bacteria and to what extent the virus affects the purification processes. Oskar and his colleagues continue to investigate the question in other systems where viruses and bacteria interact and hope to look at a more extended period and whether season, temperature and other factors have any significance.

About the research

The paper “A relationship between phages and organic carbon in wastewater treatment plant effluents” was published in Water Research X in August 2022 and written by Oskar Modin, Nafis Fuad, Marie Abadikhah, David l’Ons, Elin Ossiansson, David J. I. Gustavsson, Ellen Edefell, Carolina Suarez, Frank Persson, Britt-Marie Wilén.  The researchers are based at Chalmers and Lund University.

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