This is Eileen Wray-McCann for Circle of Blue. And this is What’s Up with Water, your “need-to-know news” of the world’s water, made possible by support from people like you. 
In Bangladesh, the new coronavirus is appearing in the world’s largest refugee settlement, raising concerns about the virus spreading quickly in crowded and unsanitary conditions.
Officials from Bangladesh and the United Nations announced that a Rohingya refugee living in a camp in southern Bangladesh tested positive for Covid-19. Reuters news service reported that the individual was taken to an isolation center. A person outside the camp also tested positive. The refugee settlement is home to nearly a million Rohingya people who fled from neighboring Myanmar, where they faced persecution and death. Health workers fear that the virus will spread in the densely populated camp unless sanitary facilities are improved and there are more areas to isolate sick people. The UN’s refugee agency has set up handwashing stations and is communicating disease-prevention strategies to camp residents. Bangladesh has reported nearly 21,000 cases of Covid-19.
In Kenya, damaged pipes have disrupted water supplies to the capital city of Nairobi. In recent weeks, heavy rains and landslides in the mountains north of the city broke pipes connected to the Sasumua dam. Nairobi Water and Sewerage Company was forced to stop service from the dam, affecting about 12 percent of the city’s water supply. Outages have occurred in the city’s western districts. Kenya’s secretary of water and sanitation told the Nairobi News that contractors are repairing the pipes and that water should begin flowing again this week.
In the United States, the federal agency that regulates the country’s commercial nuclear sector is seeking a rule change that would ease restrictions on the disposal of certain types of nuclear waste. Currently, waste with low levels of radioactivity is sent to tightly regulated sites in South Carolina, Texas, Utah, and Washington. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission would like to expand disposal options, but critics warn that allowing low-level radioactive waste to be put in municipal landfills could endanger humans and the environment if the waste leaches into soil and groundwater. According to the Guardian, one problem with the proposal is that neither law nor the commission regulations define what constitutes low-level waste. The commission says it applies to things such as clothing, tools, and medical equipment.
This week, Circle of Blue reports on the deadly consequences of stagnant water in buildings gone dormant during Covid-19 shutdowns.
The extensive closure of offices, hotels, restaurants and other commercial buildings during the coronavirus pandemic could pose a health hazard once those structures are reopened to the public. The greatest concern, say plumbing and water quality experts, is Legionnaires’ disease, a respiratory infection that is the deadliest waterborne illness in the United States.
Legionnaires’ comes from inhaling airborne droplets that carry Legionella bacteria, a pathogen that thrives in tepid, stagnant water. Prime breeding ground for Legionella is found in the nooks and crannies of indoor plumbing, especially in buildings that have sat idle for several months. With entire commercial districts vacant, these buildings are an unprecedented and unquantifiable health risk, according to water quality experts.
Plumbing consultant Tim Keane is among them. He’s a nationally recognized authority on plumbing systems, and he’s investigated deadly Legionnaires’ disease outbreaks in Flint, Michigan, and at Quincy Veterans Home, in Illinois. In each of those outbreaks, scores of people were sickened. At Quincy, at least 13 people died from the pneumonia-like illness. Keane told Circle of Blue “There will be outbreaks after Covid, there’s absolutely no doubt about it.” He said that if owners don’t reopen buildings carefully, stagnant water in poorly managed plumbing systems  could trigger a Legionnaires’ outbreak. As he put it, “This shutdown will take something that was standing on the edge and push it over.”
Charles Haas is a professor of environmental engineering at Drexel University. He said that accurate guidance is needed because the current situation is unlike anything we’ve seen before. We’re used to managing buildings that are empty for weeks or months. Hotels close for renovations. Schools see much less activity during summer recess. Resorts empty out during the off-season. But those are individual structures and isolated cases, often with established plans for reopening. Never before have so many buildings across entire city districts been vacant for so long. The sheer scale of the shutdowns introduces new risks.
Legionella bacteria occur naturally in rivers and lakes, but they don’t become a problem until get established in a building’s plumbing and multiply under the right conditions. Utilities add disinfectants to drinking water to kill the bacteria, but the disinfectants degrade in a matter of days or weeks.
Outside of the healthcare industry, very few building owners keep close watch over water quality within their walls. Widespread ignorance going into the pandemic lockdown means a greater educational burden coming out of it. Haas said that when he recently discussed water quality in idled buildings with his university’s facility maintenance staff, the issue “was not on their radar screen at all.”
He said there needs to be a unified effort to raise awareness of the health hazards and share reliable information. Those playing a role include water utilities, industry groups, public health departments, and even building insurers, who could see an increase in claims if the disease burden rises.
To see what previous research had found about building closures, Haas had a student review the academic literature. Nearly all of the water stagnation studies did not examine time frames beyond two weeks. Haas wondered about the limits of water quality knowledge. “What happens during these prolonged shutdowns?” he asked, and added “We’re in uncharted waters.”
And that’s What’s Up With Water from Circle of Blue, which relies on your support for independent water news and analysis. Please visit and make a difference through your tax-deductible donation.