Dangerous viruses are being spread around the world through the sewage held in aircraft, according to a new survey. Out of 40 samples of sewage pumped from international flights landing at two major American airports, 19 contained infectious viruses that had survived exposure to disinfectant chemicals in the aircraft’s sewage tanks.
“It was a bit of a jolt for us,” says Mark Sobsey, an environmental scientist at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, who led the study, speaking at the American Society for Microbiology meeting.
Sobsey was asked by his sponsors, the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, to search the sewage samples for enteroviruses, in particular the polio virus.
The researchers were pleased to find that the samples did not contain live polio viruses. However, other enteroviruses, which cause symptoms from stomach upsets to fever and nausea, were present.
As well as polio, the enterovirus group includes potentially lethal echoviruses and Coxsackie viruses, which can cause meningitis and myocarditis, an infection and inflammation of muscles in the heart.
Sobsey fears that other dangerous viruses that can be transmitted by sewage, such as hepatitis A and E, may also survive current sterilizing treatments. “The range of illnesses that can be transmitted by the world’s airlines is quite worrisome,” he says. “We think there are probably bacteria and parasites as well.”
In the United States, waste pumped from passenger aircraft is usually treated in municipal sewage works, Sobsey says. But conventional sewage treatment often eradicates only 90 percent of viruses. “That means 1 to 10 per cent of the viruses survive and are discharged into the environment,” he says.
So “alien” viruses could be released into the environment in countries where they do not usually occur.