Siena College uses wastewater testing to fight against COVID-19

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LOUDONVILLE, N.Y. (NEWS10) — Students at Siena College are getting their hands dirty in the fight against the coronavirus. They are collecting human waste throughout the campus to track the virus.

Cassie Hammecker, Anne Larsen, and Jennifer Guzman launched a waste water testing program this summer. It is a program that collects human waste every week from dorms and townhouses on campus.

Hammecker said the sights and smells may make you feel sick, but the program can help others from getting sick. She said the data they collect will help show where the virus is present.

“I had no idea that wastewater could have these perks,” she said.

The process starts when a student flushes the toilet or uses a sink. Dr. Kate Meierdiercks, an associate professor and chair of Siena’s department of environmental studies and sciences, said all the water goes to the sewer pipe network.

“So we set up our samplers next to the manholes. We then put the tubing down into the manholes. Over the next 24 hours, it collects wastewater samples into a big jug,” said Meierdiercks.

The pilot program started this summer and has now evolved to seven different sites on campus. Siena partnered with Adirondack Environmental Services to help them collect data from over 2,000 students. Meierdierck said it can potentially identify areas where the coronavirus is present and detect the pathogen more than a week before it would turn up on a diagnostic swab.

“It’s possibly an early detection tool to capture those asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic people. It also is used to monitor trends,”said Meierdiercks. 

They have a system if a dorm comes back positive from testing at the lab. They call it “hot water.”

“So if a dorm comes up hot, we then follow up with the individual clinical test. The individual can either do the nasal swab or the spit test,” said Meierdiercks.

Now, you may be thinking what about the strong smells? Well, Cassie and Dr. Kate said it is worth it in the end.

“Doctors and nurses are dealing with way yuckier things, so really it’s the least we could do,” said Meierdiercks.  

“The pros definitely outweigh the cons. It’s worth the yuck factor,” said Hammecker.

On Wednesday, the college collected samples from four different locations on campus. Adirondack Environmental Services took all of the samples to a lab in Syracuse. The test results should be available in the next 24 to 48 hours. NEWS10 ABC will keep you updated.

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