Can Plumbing Systems Spread COVID-19?

Global outbreak of COVID-19, the disease caused by novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, has sent the nation into a state of uncertainty regarding the future. With the virus continuing to spread, government officials are urging individuals to implement social distancing, but for those living in residential buildings such as apartment complexes, isolation might not be enough.

As the 2003 SARS outbreak (SARS-CoV-1 virus) demonstrated, the materials behind walls, beneath floorboards, and hidden amongst air ducts matter, and airborne viruses can spread from one apartment unit to another through poorly installed plumbing systems. Scientists believe it’s possible that the current coronavirus is spreading the same way.

In February, reports began to surface linking two corona cases to the same Hong Kong apartment complex. Based on photos and descriptions of the plumbing system, the spread of the virus can be tied to a plastic ventilation pipe within a bathroom’s drain, waste and vent system that had been improperly fit by an unskilled individual. The malfunctioning ventilation pipe is believed to have directed airflow contaminated with infected fecal matter inside of neighboring apartments.

The 2003 outbreak of SARS and the current COVID-19 crisis demonstrate the critical connection between public health and plumbing. Plumbing systems, both drinking water delivery and drain, wasted and vent systems, are critical in maintaining public health and failure to design and install these systems properly can quickly endanger the health of the public. That’s why these systems should be designed, installed, and modified exclusively by sanctioned professionals. As seen in Hong Kong, a seemingly inconsequential measure taken by an individual to modify a pipe, perhaps to save the cost of hiring a professional, put the health of thousands at risk and furthered the spread of the lethal coronavirus.

With confirmed cases in the US rising up above over 165,000 and an estimated five to 10 undetected cases per known case, and residents sheltering in place, the safety and security of critical building systems like the plumbing has never been more important . It is essential for building owners and residents to evaluate the reliability of their plumbing materials and system to assess if it presents any threat of spreading the virus. Below are a few quick ways to determine whether or not plumbing systems pose a risk:

1.       Determine whether or not the plumbing system was installed by professionals.

a.       The instance of COVID spread in Hong Kong was a direct result of deviance from the recommendations of plumbing professionals. It may be harmless for an unskilled individual to replace a drain plug or install a new shower head, however DIY installment or refashioning of joints, pipes, vents, and so forth pose serious risks to the safety and health of building occupants. These modifications are recommended to be exclusively made by professional plumbers who are trained, educated, and experienced with plumbing systems and possess knowledge and skill that the regular person simply does not have. 

2.       Assess the safety of the installed piping material.

Contemporary plumbing systems provide the highest level of safety from risks like virus transmission to building occupants. The plumbing industry is constantly advancing design, materials, components, and more to optimize the overall efficiency and safety of systems; and inefficient design, low quality materials, and outdated components can compromise structural safety. Plumbing systems are typically comprised of either copper pipes or plastic pipes, two materials with inherent advantages and disadvantages. Copper pipes have a long-lasting reputation for their durability, low maintenance requirements, and overall safety. They can last for decades without needing repair due to copper’s inherently sturdy metal properties, and are impermeable; meaning they cannot be penetrated or contaminated by outside foreign contaminants. Plastic pipes are a cheaper option that may or may not present dangers for viral transmission considering their permeability, high maintenance requirements, and vulnerability to break or failure.  Understanding the design and materials used within a plumbing system are crucial to assessing the risk factors for disease spread and more.

Plumbing is an essential facet to any building, and the process of selecting, installing, and maintaining a system is delicate and crucial. Every stage of this process is important to the functionality of this utility, and resiliency and safety should always be top of mind. Components of safe plumbing include the selection of proven materials like copper, iron, or concrete, the implementation of contemporary design, and sanctioned installation and maintenance by skilled professionals. As seen in Hong Kong and in the 2003 SARS outbreak, unsafe plumbing utilities can jeopardize the health of thousands. It is critical for individuals, building owners, contractors, architects, and officials to understand these risks and make smart, safe choices when it comes to their pipes.

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