October 30, 2020

Is Nothing Private Anymore?

by Maribeth Meluch, Isaac Wiles Burkholder & Teetor LLC

In the quest for tracking the spread of COVID-19, public health authorities are applying increasingly sophisticated and reliable technological measures to keep track of all things “poop.”

Human waste in sewage systems has been examined in prior times to monitor the existence of diseases such as polio and hepatitis and other viruses that can be shed through fecal matter. The analysis of the microbes that populate the human gut and the incorporated DNA can provide a unique autograph for a specific population, even predicting obesity levels and drug use of a municipality. The analysis of food and drug residue in wastewater has also been used to reveal the income levels and other sociodemographic patterns present in different neighborhoods.

This information can not only reveal real time data as to disease outbreaks, it can alert public health authorities to the advance of a disease before any cases have been reported. Using SARS-CoV-2 RNA (the virus behind COVID-19), scientists have been able to track COVID-19 to determine the onset of the presence of COVID-19 in a city and to estimate the percentage of the population affected. It has revealed more cases of COVID-19 present in a community than what other testing methods indicated. The importance of tracking sewage has not gone unnoticed by colleges and universities.

The benefits of this science to curtailing a pandemic, or even predicting one, are uncontestable. Although such information can be helpful to understand trends in a community, address sociodemographic issues, or curtail the spread of a pandemic, all of this knowledge is gathered without anyone’s consent. There may be no privacy concerns since the information is collected from the aggregated waste of thousands of people – or is it? Depending on where the waste is gathered along a waste pipeline it may be possible to identify a smaller group of people. The University of Arizona has found wastewater-based tracking an effective way to detect COVID-19 in student dormitories and was able to identify two asymptomatic students who were then tested and isolated. And if you can trace wastewater to specific populations, neighborhoods or racial groups, what is the impact of the stigma applied by the data indicating such identifiers as illicit drug use, education levels or health issues?

Thus far, there has been little oversight as to the ethical and privacy issues surrounding the surveillance of our personal physical emissions. However, Sewage Analysis CORe group Europe (SCORE) is making headway on developing policy to ensure that the technology of this emerging field of study is used in a responsible and effective manner. However, the full boundaries of ethics and privacy are yet to be determined.


Meluch
There may be no privacy concerns since the information is collected from the aggregated waste of thousands of people – or is it? Depending on where the waste is gathered along a waste pipeline it may be possible to identify a smaller group of people.