Plumbing and Public Health

There’s a saying in the plumbing industry that the plumber protects the health of the nation. What does that mean?

Plumbing systems in North America are so advanced, most people never think about the fact that flushing the toilet actually saves your life. In other parts of the world, diarrheal disease linked to a lack of safe sanitation kills more than 400,000 people annually, half of whom are children.

Even in the developed world, when systems fail or a pandemic looms, the public health aspect of plumbing takes center stage. Think Flint, Michigan … and also Navajo Nation plumbing challenges in the US Southwest. Think SARS…and also COVID-19.

In many parts of the nation, America’s drinking water is facing threats and challenges from legionella, lead, PFAs, drought and flooding.

Water-borne pathogens aren’t the only risk.  Venting of sewer gases into occupied spaces can create exposure to pathogens and spread disease. This can happen when air admittance valves are permitted to replace vent stacks and subsequently fail, as mechanical devices will do.

Well-designed plumbing systems keep us safe. Strong Uniform Plumbing Codes keep plumbing systems safe, governing these areas of public safety:

Plumbing codes govern these areas of public safety:

  • Water-borne pathogens
  • Asphyxiation and toxic sewer gas exposure
  • Scalding
  • Hair entrapment and drowning
  • Disembowelment via suction from fittings in swimming pool, hot tubs, spas and whirlpool baths
  • Hazardous building damage due to flooding
  • Electrocution
  • Loss of balance, slippage
  • Product compliance to industry safety standards

Coronaviruses and Plumbing

Plumbing systems are critically important in mitigating the spread of COVID-19, SARS, MERS and related illnesses. Inadequately designed plumbing systems contributed to the SARS outbreak in 2003.

In the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, a Chinese study found COVID-19 in the feces of some infected people. raising concerns that the virus can also be spread through the digestive tract. Indeed, diarrhea occurs in about 10-20% of people who contract COVID-19.

More concerning from that study: feces from 39 of the patients tested positive for the virus even after swabs from the nose and throat of those patients tested negative. It’s a phenomenon known as disease shedding.

It has long been understood that toilets produce aerosol “plumes” when flushed that have the potential to spread disease. Those aerosols can linger in the air and contaminate surfaces in bathrooms. It is extremely important to know that there is no evidence that COVID-19 has been spread through toilet plumes. Nonetheless, anyone who starts to feel ill with gastrointestinal symptoms should refrain should avoid using public bathrooms. At home, these individuals will want to close the toilet seat before flushing.

On the good news front, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that the coronavirus has not been detected in drinking water. IAPMO supports states and cities taking proactive measures to ensure continued access to clean water,  including deferring drinking water service cut-offs because of late or non-payment.

Related to COVID-19 are the potential risks for stagnant water in unoccupied buildings. Learn how to mitigate Legionella risk here.