UConn Researcher Monitors COVID Through Wastewater Collection

“Collecting wastewater has been a way to locate outbreaks before they have a chance to spread out of control.”


Kendra Maas, Ph.D. is the facility scientist for UConn’s Microbial Analysis, Resources, and Services laboratory(MARS) and has teamed up with University of Connecticut Student Health and Wellness(SHaW) to monitor COVID-19 on campus.


Starting at the end of June, Maas began to employ wastewater-based epidemiology (WBE), an old microbiology technique used by public health officials during cholera outbreaks in the late 1800s. Instead of looking at individuals, WBE looks at different wastewater locations to detect areas of campus that have infected individuals.


Soon after contracting COVID, individuals begin to shed large amounts of the virus through their feces, even before they become symptomatic. The virus shows up in the wastewater samples Maas collects, showing the general area of the campus the infected individuals are.


“I wanted to do this method because with just a few samples, we can get a snapshot of what’s going on all across campus,” said Maas. “I thought this could help the university with COVID protocol, because there’s a serious backlog for testing across the nation.”


The level of COVID in wastewater increases about seven days before a significant increase in cases are reported. Maas said this warning could prove critical in limiting the potential for an outbreak on campus.Her lab’s public health monitoring can detect it as it’s happening and faster than you can test individual, symptomatic people, because people start shedding virus before they feel sick.


MARS currently processes up to 12 wastewater samples every day with eight pumps across campus. Dr. Maas hopes to attain seven more water pumps, so they can test up to 48 samples per day.


“You don’t want to get a sample quickly, because that isn’t really representative for what’s happening in that building or that cluster of buildings,” said Maas. “That’s just representative of what happened in the past five minutes, so we collect samples over the whole day.”


Testing for the virus in wastewater is more concerned with making sure the levels of virus stays the same or decreases, according to Maas. Increasing levels of virus prompts MARS to alert SHaW and implement procedures in those areas of campus.


“The biggest thing about looking for COVID, because people shed it in their feces for so long after they’re infectious, then you don’t say this sample is positive or this is negative,” said Maas. 


Ultimately, Maas hopes the wastewater surveillance developed at UConn might also be applied to other wastewater systems. She emphasizes the importance of using efficient and cost effective techniques, as to make health minoring “accessible and attainable for any institution or town.”

Words from Researchers: Brendan Noons

By Allison O’Donnell, Written Communications Specialist, CT IWR

The use of organic fertilizers for lawn care has increased recently because they are typically perceived as being better for the environment than traditional chemical fertilizers. However, organic fertilizers such as compost also contain nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen, which can still leach into water if applied improperly.


Leaching is when water soluble forms of nutrients (such as phosphorus and nitrogen) are removed from the soil and dissolved into the water, which makes its way back to fresh and saltwater ecosystems.


Connecticut Institute of Water Resourcesis funding Brendan Noons, a graduate researcher in the University of Connecticut’s Department of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture. The aims of Brendan’s work are to answer what the potential environmental impacts are when using compost as a lawn fertilizer, and how much is really needed for optimal turf growth.


“It is important that we identify potential water quality issues that could stem from [use of organic compost]…and find a balance between lawn health and the environment.”


While these nutrients are essential for plant growth, Noons says that higher concentrations lead to adverse effects, such as contaminating drinking water and causing algal blooms. Connecticut has a high magnitude of water resources as well as turfgrass, making it especially vulnerable to nitrogen and phosphorus leaching.


“Researching this topic is important because a large portion of Connecticut is covered in turfgrass- about 250,000 acres- and is often located near important water resources and ecosystems.”


This grant enables Noons to explore the relationship between soil nutrient levels and phosphorus leaching from lawn turfs that have been treated with compost. Knowing the optimal amount of nutrients will result in the mitigation of water contamination, while keeping our lawns green and healthy.

Words From Researchers: Randi Mendes

By Allison O’Donnell, Written Communications Specialist, CT IWR

One of the many benefits wetlands provide is the transfer of excess nitrogen in soil water back into the air- a process known as denitrification. Randi Mendes, a Ph.D candidate researching soil denitrification in wetlands with the Vadas Group, says this process results in greenhouse gas emission, the type of gas that contributes to global warming and climate change.


CT IWR is funding the University of Connecticut’s Dr. Tim Vadasto help better understand and identify methods of reducing wetland’s greenhouse gas emissions. This research would lend itself to designing a water treatment process through wetlands.


“It’s one of those gases that we’re really concerned about figuring out why it’s occurring in the environment and how to reduce that emission,” said Mendes.


Nitrogen is naturally occurring, but water runoff results in excess amounts in wetlands from using pesticides, additives for crops or natural pollutants from people. Soil makeup plays a role in how much greenhouse gas is produced, so Mendes’ research focuses on “isolating those environmental factors that are actually contributing to more [greenhouse gas] release, so we can potentially modify our environmental system to prevent that from occurring.”


Treatment wetlands are man-made ecosystems that naturally help remove pollutants from our environment. Mendes says that this research can be applied to the design of treatment wetlands and areas that receive a lot of rain runoff before that water reaches lakes, rivers or oceans.


“If we can design those systems better so that we’re not only cleaning, but also reducing the greenhouse gas emissions from these to make it an overall better system,” said Mendes. “Hopefully, in the grander scheme of things we can help with reducing the human impact on climate change.”

Words From Researchers: Mark Urban

By Allison O’Donnell, Written Communications Specialist, CT IWR

In addition to having lots of permanent water bodies, New England is home to many seasonal ponds that dry out during parts of the year. These diverse ecosystems are likely to be affected by climate change, so the CT IWR has funded University of Connecticut’s Dr. Mark Urban to research the effects of climate change on these systems.

The ponds in our region are particularly vulnerable to climate change. In addition to higher temperatures, our region is seeing changes in precipitation patterns, including more high-intensity storms and droughts. Species such as dragonflies, frogs and spotted salamanders need the habitat these ponds provide during specific periods in their life cycles.

Since 2019, Urban has been researching how water retention in these temporary ponds changes on a seasonal basis. The goal is to be able to predict how changes in water levels will impact the species that populate these ecosystems.

“The more we know, the more we can do to mitigate these [effects] and protect biodiversity,” said Urban. Research has shown that if water levels recede while a species is still reliant on the pond’s many resources, they will be left vulnerable to predators. Prediction of water changes gives these scientists enough time to design strategies to protect the at-risk species.

“The hydrology of these ponds is very important because many organisms have a certain time they need to be in the pond in order to develop,” said Urban.

Though these small creatures may not seem important, they play a large role in our local environment and Urban says that the impact could be greater than expected.

“It is the disturbances of these food webs that can lead to dramatic changes in the entire system,” said Urban.

“I think that’s a lesson for how climate change will affect many systems that are important for human economy, culture and health.”

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