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Texas A&M researchers find evidence common water treatment method can eliminate COVID-19

There is currently no evidence that COVID-19 has found its way into our water supply yet, nor is there an imminent threat, but this experiment is important in proving there’s a way to get rid of the virus if it ever does.
Published: Feb. 10, 2021 at 10:39 PM CST
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas (KBTX) - Researchers at Texas A&M have found strong evidence a common water treatment method can eliminate COVID-19 from the water supply.

Dr. Shankar Chellam and his team designed an experiment using water they made in their lab and a surrogate virus that is similar in structure to the novel coronavirus to see if standard methods used at water treatment plants could be successful in removing virus particles.

“We showed even within three minutes, we are able to remove this surrogate or substitute virus by 99.999%,” Chellam, who is an environmental engineering professor at the school, said.

Chellam says he wants to be very clear that there is currently no evidence that COVID-19 has found its way into our water supply yet, nor is there an imminent threat, but this experiment is important in proving there’s a way to get rid of the virus if it ever does.

“We wanted to ask the question in the unlikely, improbable case there is some coronavirus in your water supply, what do existing treatment plants do,” Chellam said.

Chellam’s team made their own water solutions with their own chemistry. This allowed them to do careful research on exactly what they were testing.

“All our experiments were done with what in our discipline is called a synthetic water,” Chellam said. “It’s not like we went to a water treatment plant and got a sample of water for our experiments. If we had done that, we don’t know all the things that are in it, making our research much more difficult.”

The surrogate virus they used is known as Phi6. Chellam says they chose that virus because for two primary reasons. One is that it is similarly structured to the COVID-19 virus. Phi6 is what’s called an envelope virus and contains the spiked proteins.

The other reason is Phi6 is also an extremely safe virus for humans to handle. It can only infect bacteria, as it is not capable of harming people or animals.

“There are many other labs that are using this other virus as a proxy for the coronavirus in certain studies,” Chellam said.

Chellam says cities that use surface water, such as water that comes from lakes or rivers, for their water supply use a standard process called coagulation to treat it. Coagulation uses destabilization to activate particles in the water, causing them to clump together to create larger particles that can easily be filtered out.

“We wanted to study how coagulation could control this virus,” Chellam said.

Using a common coagulate called iron chloride, Chellam and his team found virus particles would clump together during this process, allowing them to remove 99.999% of it from the water.

Because this experiment was a success, Chellam and his team are designing three new experiments to further test this process and ensure it is still effective in a more real-world setting.

“We’ve been planning and discussing using actual water from lakes or rivers in the near future,” Kyungho Kim, a member of Chellam’s team and Texas A&M Ph.D. candidate, said. “We’ve also been discussing using another type of virus.”

The third kind of experiment will test different types of commonly used coagulants. Chellam and Kim hope coagulation will continue to be effective in eliminating virus particles from the water they’re using when they add or change these variables to these future separate experiments.

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