Wastewater testing at Dal residences strengthens COVID safety efforts on campus

- September 23, 2021

Howe Hall, shown above, is among the Dal residences where wastewater is being tested for the virus that causes COVID-19. (Danny Abriel photo)
Howe Hall, shown above, is among the Dal residences where wastewater is being tested for the virus that causes COVID-19. (Danny Abriel photo)

To keep tabs on whether COVID-19 could crop up on campus, a team of staff and researchers at Dalhousie are shifting their gaze down beneath the streets outside university residences.

Samples of human wastewater flowing out of the buildings are being collected and tested as part of a province-wide monitoring program launched earlier this year by Graham Gagnon and Amina Stoddart, researchers in Dal’s Faculty of Engineering.

The researchers say testing wastewater can help detect the presence of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, before it has a chance to spread.

Early detection efforts via wastewater testing add another layer of protection against COVID-19 at Dal, in addition to vaccine and testing requirements, continued masking in shared common indoor spaces and improvements to ventilation systems.

“Our lab has shared our research findings and sampling innovation with many national and international organizations,” says Dr. Gagnon, who is also the NSERC Industrial Research Chair in Water Quality and Treatment, director of Dal’s Centre for Water Resource Studies and dean in the Faculty of Architecture and Planning.

“We are delighted to bring this research into action here at Dal to support on-campus safety.”

See also: Staying safe this fall: Seven things you need to know

How it works

Dr. Gagnon and his team have created a video (see below) showcasing the process and highlighting the Dalhousie residences currently being monitored as part of the project, including Shirreff Hall, Howe Hall, LeMarchant Place, and Risley Hall.

To carry out the tests, the researchers must first retrieve the samples. They’ve called on members of Dal’s Facilities Management team as part of the endeavour, enlisting their help in prying open maintenance hole covers on the streets to enable access to wastewater systems underground.

A rope with a small softball-sized device called a COVID Sewage Cage attached to the end is then connected to a wooden brace at the opening and lowered into the flow, where it is left to passively gather a sample for later collection and analysis.

This process is repeated twice a week for each sample site and results are reported back to the university to support safety planning.

Growing interest

Drs. Gagnon and Stoddart's project began with a pilot study last fall in Wolfville, N.S. Samples gathered from the town's wastewater system as part of that work detected SARS-CoV-2. Earlier this year, the team received funding from Research Nova Scotia ($851,730) to expand the project to sites across Nova Scotia, including in Halifax Regional Municipality, Wolfville, Antigonish and the Cape Breton Regional Municipality.

LuminUltra, a Canadian biotech firm, has since begun work on commercializing the Dal team's testing method, pitching it to Canadian and international markets as a “non-invasive” tool to gain insights into the health of large populations.

More information on Dal's safety plan (including FAQs) can be found on the COVID-19 Updates and Information website.


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