There’s hardly a person out there who hasn’t heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. That type of pollution is impossible to miss. It stares you in the face from pictures and videos of sea turtles with drinking straws up their noses and acres of plastic swirling in the sea.
It demands you to solve the problem—and it works. The campaign to raise awareness about plastic pollution in the oceans has resulted in new policies, including bans on microplastics in personal care products, technology to clean up the plastic, and even new plastic-like materials that are better for the environment.
But there’s a different type of pollution smothering the ocean as you read this. Unfortunately, this one is almost invisible, but no less damaging. In fact, it’s even more serious than plastic and most people have no idea it even exists. It is literally under our noses, destroying our oceans, lakes, and rivers – and yet we are missing it completely while contributing to it daily. In fact, we exacerbate it multiple times a day—every time we use the bathroom.
It is the way we do our sewage.
Most of us don’t think much about what happens after we flush the toilet. Most of us probably assume that the substances we flush go “somewhere” and are dealt with safely. But we typically don’t think about it beyond that.
Most of us also probably don’t think about what’s in the ocean or lakes we swim in. Since others are swimming, jumping in is just fine. But our waterways are far from clean. In fact, at times they are incredibly filthy. In the US, we are dumping 1.2 trillion of gallons of untreated sewage into the environment every year. Just New York City alone discharges 27 billion gallons into the Hudson River basin annually.
How does this happen? Part of it is the unfortunate side effect of our sewage system design that dates back to over a century ago when cities were smaller and fewer people were living so close together.
Back then, engineers designed the so-called “combine sewer overflow systems,” or CSOs, in which the storm water pipes are connected to the sanitary sewer pipes. In normal conditions, the sewage effluent from homes flows to the treatment plants where it gets cleaned and released into the waterways. But when it rains, the pipe system becomes so overwhelmed with water that the treatment plant can’t process it fast enough. So the treatment plant has to release the excess water through its discharge pipes—directly, without treatment, into streams, rivers and the ocean.
The 1.2 trillion gallons of CSO releases isn’t even the full picture. There are also discharges from poorly maintained septic systems, cesspools and busted pipes of the aging wastewater infrastructure. The state of Hawaii alone has 88,000 cesspools that need replacing and are currently leaking 53 million gallons of raw sewage daily into their coastal waters. You may think twice about swimming on your Hawaii vacations.
Overall, the US is facing a $271 billion backlog in wastewater infrastructure projects to update these aging systems. Across the Western world, countries are facing similar challenges with their aging sewage systems, especially the UK and European Union.
That’s not to say that other parts of the planet are in better shape. Out of the 7+ billion people populating our earth, 4.2 billion don’t have access to safe sanitation. Included in this insane number are roughly 2 billion people who have no toilet at all. Whether washed by rains or dumped directly into the waterways, a lot of this sludge pollutes the environment, the drinking water, and ultimately the ocean.
Pipes pour water onto a rocky shore in Jakarta, Indonesia.
What complicates this from an ocean health perspective is that it’s not just poop and pee that gets dumped into nearby waterways. It is all the things we put in and on our bodies and flush down our drains. That vicious mix of chemicals includes caffeine, antibiotics, antidepressants, painkillers, hormones, microplastics, cocaine, cooking oils, paint thinners, and PFAS—the forever chemicals present in everything from breathable clothing to fire retardant fabrics of our living room couches. Recent reports have found all of the above substances in fish—and then some.
Why do we allow so much untreated sewage spill into the sea? Frankly speaking, for decades scientists and engineers thought that the ocean could handle it. The mantra back then was “dilution is the solution to pollution,” which might’ve worked when there were much fewer people living on earth—but not now. Today science is telling us that this old approach doesn’t hold. That marine habitats are much more sensitive than we had expected and can’t handle the amount of wastewater we are discharging into them.
The excess nitrogen and phosphorus that the sewage (and agricultural runoff) dumps into the water causes harmful algal blooms, more commonly known as red or brown tides. The water column is overtaken by tiny algae that sucks up all the oxygen from the water, creating dead zones like the big fish kills in the Gulf of Mexico. These algae also cause public health issues by releasing gases toxic to people and animals, including dementia, neurological damage, and respiratory illness. Marshes and mangroves end up with weakened root systems and start dying off. In a wastewater modeling study I published last year, we found that 31 percent of salt marshes globally were heavily polluted with human sewage. Coral reefs get riddled with disease and overgrown by seaweed.
We could convert sewage into high-value goods. It can be used to generate electricity, fertilizer, and drinking water. The technologies not only exist but are getting better and more efficient all the time.
Moreover, by way of our sewage, we managed to transmit a human pathogen—Serratia marcescens, which causes urinary, respiratory and other infections in people—to corals! Recent reports from the Florida Keys are showing white pox disease popping up in elk horn corals caused by S.marcescens, which somehow managed to jump species. Many recent studies have documented just how common this type of pollution is across the globe.
Yet, there is some good news in that abysmal sewage flow. Just like with plastic pollution, realizing that there’s a problem is the first step, so awareness is key. That’s exactly why I co-founded Ocean Sewage Alliance last year—a nonprofit that aims to “re-potty train the world” by breaking taboos in talking about the poop and pee problem, as well as uniting experts from various key sectors to work together to end sewage pollution in coastal areas.
To end this pollution, we have to change the ways we handle our sewage. Even more exciting is that by solving the sewage problem we can create all sorts of economic benefits. In 2015, human poop was valued at $9.5 billion a year globally, which today would be $11.5 billion per year.
What would one do with that sh$t?
We could convert it into high-value goods. Sewage can be used to generate electricity, fertilizer, and drinking water. The technologies not only exist but are getting better and more efficient all the time. Some exciting examples include biodigesters and urine diversion (or peecycling) systems that can produce fertilizer and biogas, essentially natural gas. The United Nations estimates that the biogas produced from poop could provide electricity for 138 million homes. And the recovered and cleaned water can be used for irrigation, laundry and flushing toilets. It can even be refined to the point that it is safe for drinking water – just ask the folks in Orange County, CA who have been doing so for the last few decades.
How do we deal with all the human-made pollutants in our sewage? There is technology for that too. Called pyrolysis, it heats up sludge to high temperatures in the absence of oxygen, which causes most of the substances to degrade and fall apart.
There are solutions to the problems—as long as we acknowledge that the problems exist. The fact that you are reading this means that you are part of the solution already. The next time you flush your toilet, think about where this output may flow. Does your septic system work properly? Does your local treatment plant discharge raw sewage on rainy days? Can that plant implement newer technologies that can upcycle waste? These questions are part of re-potty training the world, one household at a time. And together, these households are the force that can turn back the toxic sewage tide. And keep our oceans blue.
Responding to COVID-19 outbreaks at more than 200 mink farms, the Danish government, in November 2020, culled its entire mink population. The Danish armed forces helped farmers slaughter each of their 17 million minks, which are normally farmed for their valuable fur.
The SARS-CoV-2 virus, said officials, spread from human handlers to the small, ferret-like animals, mutated, and then spread back to several hundred humans. Although the mass extermination faced much criticism, Denmark’s prime minister defended the decision last month, stating that the step was “necessary” and that the Danish government had “a responsibility for the health of the entire world.”
Over the past two and half years, COVID-19 infections have been reported in numerous animal species around the world. In addition to the Danish minks, there is other evidence that the virus can mutate as it’s transmitted back and forth between humans and animals, which increases the risk to public health. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), COVID-19 vaccines for animals may protect the infected species and prevent the transmission of viral mutations. However, the development of such vaccines has been slow. Scientists attribute the deficiency to a lack of data.
“Several animal species have been predicted and found to be susceptible to SARS-CoV-2,” says Suresh V. Kuchipudi, interim director of the Animal Diagnostic Laboratory at the Huck Institutes of Life Sciences. But the risk remains unknown for many animals in several parts of the world, he says. “Therefore, there is an urgent need to monitor the SARS-CoV-2 exposure of high-risk animals in different parts of the world.”
In June, India introduced Ancovax, its first COVID-19 vaccine for animals. The development came a year after the nation reported that the virus had infected eight Asiatic lions, with two of them dying. While 30 COVID-19 vaccines for humans have been approved for general or emergency use across the world, Ancovax is only the third such vaccine for animals. The first, named Carnivac-Cov, was registered by Russia in March last year, followed by another vaccine four months later, developed by Zoetis, a U.S. pharmaceutical company.
Christina Lood, a Zoetis spokesperson, says the company has donated over 26,000 doses of its animal vaccine to over 200 zoos – in addition to 20 conservatories, sanctuaries and other animal organizations located in over a dozen countries, including Canada, Chile and the U.S. The vaccine, she adds, has been administered to more than 300 mammalian species so far.
“At least 75 percent of emerging infectious diseases have an animal origin, including COVID-19,” says Lood. “Now more than ever before, we can all see the important connection between animal health and human health."
The Dangers of COVID-19 Infections among Animals
Cases of the virus in animals have been reported in several countries across the world. As of March this year, 29 kinds of animals have been infected. These include pet animals like dogs, cats, ferrets and hamsters; farmed animals like minks; wild animals like the white-tailed deer, mule deer and black-tailed marmoset; and animals in zoos and sanctuaries, including hyenas, hippopotamuses and manatees. Despite the widespread infection, the U.S. Centres for Diseases Control and Prevention (CDC) has noted that “we don’t yet know all of the animals that can get infected,” adding that more studies and surveillance are needed to understand how the virus is spread between humans and animals.
Leyi Wang, a veterinary virologist at the Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory, University of Illinois, says that captive and pet animals most often get infected by humans. It goes both ways, he says, citing a recent study in Hong Kong that found the virus spread from pet hamsters to people.
Wang’s bigger concern is the possibility that humans or domestic animals could transmit the virus back to wildlife, creating an uncontrollable reservoir of the disease, especially given the difficulty of vaccinating non-captive wild animals. Such spillbacks have happened previously with diseases such as plague, yellow-fever, and rabies.
It’s challenging and expensive to develop and implement animal vaccines, and demand has been lacking as the broader health risk for animals isn’t well known among the public. People tend to think only about their house pets.
In the past, other human respiratory viruses have proven fatal for endangered great apes like chimpanzees and gorillas. Fearing that COVID-19 could have the same effect, primatologists have been working to protect primates throughout the pandemic. Meanwhile, virus reservoirs have already been created among other animals, Wang says. “Deer of over 20 U.S. states were tested SARS-CoV-2 positive,” says Wang, pointing to a study that confirmed human-to-deer transmission as well as deer-to-deer transmission. It remains unclear how many wildlife species may be susceptible to the disease due to interaction with infected deer, says Wang.
In April, the CDC expressed concerns over new coronavirus variants mutating in wildlife, urging health authorities to monitor the spread of the contagion in animals as threats to humans. The WHO has made similar recommendations.
Challenges to Vaccine Development
Zoetis initiated development activities for its COVID-19 vaccine in February 2020 when the first known infection of a dog occurred in Hong Kong. The pharmaceutical giant completed the initial development work and studies on dogs and cats, and shared their findings at the World One Health Congress in the fall of 2020. A few months later, after a troop of eight gorillas contracted the virus at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, Zoetis donated its experimental vaccine for emergency use in the great ape population.
Zoetis has uniquely formulated its COVID-19 vaccine for animals. It uses the same antigen as human vaccines, but it includes a different type of carrier protein for inducing a strong immune response. “The unique combination of antigen and carrier ensures safety and efficacy for the species in which a vaccine is used,” says Lood.
But it’s challenging and expensive to develop and implement animal vaccines, and demand has been lacking as the broader health risk for animals isn’t well known among the public. People tend to think only about their house pets. “As it became apparent that risk of severe disease for household pets such as cats and dogs was low, demand for those vaccines decreased before they became commercially available,” says William Karesh, executive vice-president for health and policy at EcoHealth Alliance. He adds that in affected commercial mink farms, the utility of a vaccine could justify the cost in some cases.
Although scientists have made tremendous advances in making vaccines for animals, Kuchipudi thinks that the need for COVID-19 vaccines for animals “must be evaluated based on many factors, including the susceptibility of the particular animal species, health implications, and cost.”.
Not every scientist feels the need for animal vaccines. Joel Baines, a professor of virology at Cornell University’s Baker Institute for Animal Health, says that while domestic cats are the most susceptible to COVID-19, they usually suffer mild infections. Big cats in zoos are vulnerable, but they can be isolated or distanced from humans. He says that mink farms are a relatively small industry and, by ensuring that human handlers are COVID negative, such outbreaks can be curtailed.
Baines also suggests that human vaccines could probably work in animals, as they were tested in animals during early clinical trials and induced immune responses. “However, these vaccines should be used in humans as a priority and it would be unethical to use a vaccine meant for humans to vaccinate an animal if vaccine doses are at all limiting,” he says.
William Karesh, president of the World Animal Health Organization Working Group on Wildlife Diseases, says the best way to protect animals is to reduce their exposure to infected people.
In the absence of enough vaccines, Karesh says that the best way to protect animals is the same as protecting unvaccinated humans - reduce their exposure to infected people by isolating them when necessary. “People working with or spending time with wild animals should follow available guidelines, which includes testing themselves and wearing PPE to avoid accidentally infecting wildlife,” he says.
The Link between Animal and Human Health
Although there is a need for animal vaccines in response to virus outbreaks, the best approach is to try to prevent the outbreaks in the first place, explains K. Srinath Reddy, president of the Public Health Foundation of India. He says that the incidence of zoonotic diseases has increased in the past six decades because human actions like increased deforestation, wildlife trade and animal meat consumption have opened an ecological window for disease transmission between humans and animals. Such actions chip away at the natural barriers between humans and forest-dwelling viruses, while building conveyor belts for the transmission of zoonotic diseases like COVID-19.
Many studies suggest that the source of COVID-19 was infected live animals sold at a wet market in China’s Wuhan. The market sold live dogs, rats, porcupines, badgers, hares, foxes, hedgehogs, marmots and Chinese muntjac (small deer) and, according to a study published in July, the virus was found on the market’s stalls, animal cages, carts and water drains.
This research strongly suggests that COVID-19 is a zoonotic disease, one that jumps from animals to humans due to our close relationship with them in agriculture, as companions and in the natural environment. Half of the infectious diseases that affect people come from animals, but the study of zoonotic diseases has been historically underfunded, even as they can reduce the likelihood and cost of future pandemics.
“We need to invest in vaccines,” says Reddy, “but that cannot be a substitute for an ecologically sensible approach to curtailing zoonotic diseases.”
The Friday Five covers five stories in health research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.