For the last two months, Arlington County has been getting your sewage tested to measure community Covid infection levels.
The Department of Environmental Services is sending weekly samples to Biobot, a Massachusetts-based health tech startup that got its start monitoring wastewater for opioids but pivoted to COVID-19 testing during the pandemic. The company now tests wastewater samples for municipalities nationwide.
Wastewater surveillance is seeing more interest as reported Covid testing rates wane and the focus of the federal government and some cities shifts from counting Covid cases to tracking hospitalization rates. Indeed, wastewater surveillance is one way the Centers for Disease Control is tracking the rise of the new Omicron subvariant BA.2, now the dominant Covid strain in the nation.
“The case counts aren’t as reliable as they used to be, so we’ve seen more interest in wastewater analysis as an unbiased look at what’s going on in their communities,” Biobot’s Jennings Heussner tells ARLnow. “People aren’t getting tested because they’re being tested at home, they don’t know they’re sick, or they don’t feel the need to get a test — they feel poorly and decide to stay home.”
Even if people stop seeking out tests, there is one place where their viral load will show up: the toilet.
“You start shedding the virus in your fecal matter at the point of infection,” Heussner said. “That increases until you become symptomatic and then begins to fall off from there. You have a window of — it varies from person to person — up to a week before you know you’ve been sick that you’ve been shedding the virus in your fecal matter.”
Biobot uses PCR testing to ascertain the concentration of viral RNA per milliliter of sewage, which is the unit it reports on its webpage. Regular wastewater samples can give municipalities anywhere from a two to 10 days’ heads-up of what might be coming in terms of community infection levels, before the infections show up in testing data, Heussner said.
According to the Virginia Dept. of Health, the average rate of new cases in Arlington hit a seasonal low point on March 6. Biobot’s wastewater data, meanwhile, hit its low point two days earlier, on March 4.
The local case rate has since nearly doubled, rising from 24 daily cases on March 6 to a seven-day moving average of 46 daily cases today, according to VDH data. Biobot’s wastewater data, meanwhile, continues to point to an upward trajectory of infections in Arlington.
Most cases in Northern Virginia stem from the dominant Omicron variant, with subvariant BA.2 comprising a growing portion of total case numbers, according to a new state dashboard tracking variants of Covid. Biobot can detect which variants are present, although that information is currently not available for Arlington.
As for the gap in wastewater sampling data on the chart above, Heussner said Biobot received samples from Arlington County last summer through a collaboration with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Sampling stopped when that partnership ended, until Arlington again began sending samples in February.
While the county is submitting wastewater to weekly testing, it is not rushing to adopt this method as a gold standard for tracking the virus.
“The Arlington County Public Health Division reminds everyone that wastewater surveillance for the virus that causes COVID-19 is a developing field,” public health spokesman Ryan Hudson said. “Wastewater testing over time may provide trend data that can complement other surveillance data to inform decision-making about the response to COVID-19.”
He noted that currently, wastewater testing cannot “reliably and accurately predict” the number of infected individuals in a community.
“As for the uptick in cases, now is the time to get your COVID-19 booster if you haven’t,” Hudson said. “It is recommended that everyone 12 years and older receive the appropriate booster doses of the COVID-19 vaccine.”
(Updated 5:45 p.m.) Washington-Liberty High School senior James Licato is trying to clean up micropollutants in the Potomac River, and he came up with a solution that vaulted him to the finals of a major science competition.
Licato is one of 40 finalists in the Society for Science’s Regeneron Science Talent Search 2021, the nation’s oldest science and math competition for high school seniors. He developed a sandy substance, using zeolites, that acts as a microscopic net, catching the micropollutants that wastewater treatment facilities miss.
Chosen from 1,760 applicants, top finalists each earn $25,000 in scholarships and can nab between $40,000 and $250,000 if they are named in the top 10. This year’s virtual competition goes from March 10-17.
“Regeneron is definitely prestigious,” Licato said. “It feels great.”
Arlington Public Schools last had a senior — from Wakefield High School — make it to the finals in 1997. Washington-Liberty High School last had two students reach the final round in 1976, and have had four in total since 1942, said Society for Science spokeswoman Aparna Paul. Yorktown High School most recently had a finalist in 1996.
Licato credits the APS science staff with connecting him with extracurricular opportunities to present his work. His teachers also helped him work out the logistics of participating in science fairs and ordered materials he needed but could not obtain.
“The APS science department is awesome and has always been really supportive of everything I’ve done,” Licato said.
Licato said his area of research is a growing one, as more people become aware of the toxicity of these micropollutants. Many known pharmaceutical and personal care products (PPCPs) are toxic to aquatic organisms and perfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAs), found in non-stick and water-resistant coatings, can cause a host of diseases in humans, he said.
“The more we study, the more negative effects we find,” he said.
The benefit of his product is that it could be cheap and scalable because it could use the byproduct of coal fire plants, which normally sits in landfills, he said. It will need more testing and engineering work but Licato believes it has the potential to attract federal funding.
A Boy Scout and avid fisher, Licato has always been passionate about water quality and ecology. He won second place in the Earth and Environmental Sciences at the INTEL ISEF competition, also hosted by Society for Science, for his project removing an anti-diabetic medicine from wastewater.
That project introduced him to Thomas Huff, the Director of the Shared Research Instrumentation Facility at George Mason University, who specializes in researching river pollutants. Licato reached out to him because he needed to access a liquid chromatograph-tandem mass spectrometer.
At first, Huff was “highly skeptical,” but the then-sophomore won him over. He said Licato proved to be more adept with the machine than many senior undergraduate students.
Huff offered him an internship drawing and analyzing environmental samples at the Potomac Science Center in Woodbridge. He and a team of graduate researchers at George Mason University were determining the concentrations of PPCPs near wastewater treatment facilities for multiple grant projects.
Licato became a peer of the graduate student researchers, offering new ideas and mastering the software the team used, Huff said. He also developed methods of analyzing data that the other students and professors still use. The lab received a three-year contract to continue studying micropollutants.
“He was a consummate team member and morale booster,” the professor said. “He even taught tricks and tips to a full professor with 35 years of research experience.”
An “emergency utility repair” at Arlington’s sewage treatment plant led to a sewage release into Four Mile Run.
The sewage release happened this morning at the plant on S. Glebe Road. County officials are warning people to avoid the stream between S. Arlington Ridge Road and the Potomac.
“The public is advised to stay away from the affected water and to keep pets away until further notice,” Arlington County said in a press release. “Stream water can contain microorganisms that can make people sick, whether the stream is located in an urban area or in the middle of a forest. Even after the discharge is naturally flushed from the streams, the County’s normal precautions for safe use of streams apply.”
Crews are working to repair the unspecified issue at the plant. As a result of the work, a portion of S. Glebe Road is closed at S. Eads Street.
“An estimated completion time for the repair is unknown at this time,” the county said.
Separately, just before 9:15 a.m., a crash also blocked a lane of S. Glebe Road near S. Arlington Ridge Road, after an SUV reportedly careened into a utility pole.
Update at 1:30 p.m. — All lanes of S. Glebe Road have reopened, the county says.
Updated at 11:35 a.m. — The work on the county’s sewage plant has been postponed until next week, officials say.
UPDATE 11:15am – This repair work has been postponed. Any safe-but-perhaps-noticeable odor likely to be rescheduled for early next week. [Insert Redskins defense reference here.] https://t.co/N1wV5vJkpO
— Arlington Department of Environmental Services (@ArlingtonDES) September 24, 2019
Earlier: The air near Arlington’s sewage plant is expected to be a bit more rank than usual
The county’s Dept. of Environmental Services announced yesterday that the plant near Crystal City was undergoing repair work on its odor control system, starting today (Tuesday). As a result “a sulfurous odor may be noticeable near the plant as air is vented out of manholes on both sides of South Glebe Road.”
Staff from the department provided a diagram (above) showing the location of the work and the odorous manholes, noting that the extra emissions are safe and not a health hazard.
The full announcement from DES is below.
Tomorrow through Friday, weather-permitting, crews at the County Water Pollution Control Plant will be repairing a duct connected to an odor control scrubber system that discharges cleaned air to the atmosphere. During the work, a sulfurous odor may be noticeable near the plant as air is vented out of manholes on both sides of South Glebe Road.
There is no health hazard posed by this work.
The photo [above] shows the scrubber buildings involved in the repairs as outlined and two small purple x’s indicating the manholes involved in venting.
Safety is always the plant staff’s No. 1 priority. Last year, the plant won the Virginia Water Environment Association’s Facility Safety Award.
Thank you for your patience and understanding.
Arlington County Department of Environmental Services
Image via Arlington Dept. of Environmental Services
People tend to flush and forget, but a plan approved by the County Board yesterday (Tuesday) could eventually result in the solid waste generated by Arlingtonians being deposited right back onto their lawns.
Fifteen years ago Arlington began a massive upgrade of the liquid side of its wastewater treatment facility — work that was finally completed several years ago at a cost of over a half billion dollars. Since then the solid side of the sewage plant has continue to degrade. Solid wastes are currently trucked away from the site five to six times each day. Instead, a new Solids Master Plan could transform that waste into soil enhancement for local yards and collect methane gas to be used in Arlington’s bus network.
“The solid site is now reaching the end of its natural life,” said Sarah McKinley, the president of the Columbia Heights Civic Association, who served as a community representative on the stakeholder committee. “We could replace it with current equipment or go to new technology that would really move us into the future.”
The new treatment is a three-phase process that will gradually replace equipment at the treatment center, with a total cost of $154.8 million spread out across those phases. The plan would require additional staff, but the cost is offset by reducing the number of truck trips from the site.
The new cleaning process would create two byproducts, a fertilizer-like biosolid that the plan says could be used by the public, the county, or commercial entities for soil treatment. Further processing — such as blending with soil or a “bulking agent” — would be required if the biosolid is to be locally distributed.
The other byproduct, a biogas compound, could be converted into compressed natural gas. The plan identifies the Arlington Transit bus fleet, conveniently parked across the street from the treatment facility, as a potential customer.
McKinley noted that there were concerns from residents living near the treatment site about pollution from the methane creation process and the routine gas flares from the treatment plant. However, she said added that committee believed the environmental and community benefits outweighed the concerns.
“I think it really moves us into the future,” said McKinley. “It makes sense. It’s a clean plan.”
The county is set to implement the new solid waste handling method in 2027.
Spring Break Activities — Today is the last day of school for Arlington Public Schools students before spring break. The county’s parks and recreation department has some suggested activities to keep kids of all ages occupied next week. [Arlington County]
Casual Adventure Property’s Familiar New Owners — The owners of long-time Virginia Square outdoor retailer Casual Adventure announced this week that it’s closing, and the property sale reportedly already has taken place. The new owner is 1404 Hancock Street Investment LLC, a company registered to Brian Normile of BCN Enterprises. He’s partnering with Stephen and Mark Fedorchak, who own Liberty Tavern, Lyon Hall and Northside Social. [Washington Business Journal]
CEB Acquisition Complete — IT consulting and research firm Gartner has completed its acquisition of Arlington-based technology and insights firm CEB in a $3.3 billion deal. Gartner plans to expand CEB’s consulting services into new markets and develop a line of new research and advisory products. [StamfordAdvocate]
Solid-Waste Plant Upgrade Raises Flaring Gas Concerns — Arlington County is encountering some pushback over the $100 million upgrade to the Water Pollution Control Plant. Concerns have been raised over a proposed new process that might cause flaring gas. [InsideNova]
Photo courtesy Rob Laybourn
This regularly-scheduled sponsored Q&A column is written by the Arlington Initiative to Rethink Energy team (AIRE). This county program helps you make smart energy decisions that save you money and leaves a lighter footprint on the environment. Got a question? Email us at [email protected]!
Whether you are planning to watch the big game tomorrow or not (sorry Redskins fans), there’s one bowl we should all keep our eyes on: the toilet bowl.
The real evidence of Arlingtonians’ Super Bowl celebrating will be in the sewer pipes. The “Super Bowl flush” is the moment that thousands of toilets in Arlington all flush at the same time – halftime.
If all 184 million viewers flushed with a water efficient WaterSense toilet instead of an older model, over 400 million gallons of water could be saved! Instead of spending money on your water bill, you could spend it on your favorite beverage.
Using water = using energy. You may not think about it, but it takes a lot of energy to purify your water and then pump it to your home. After you flush, it also takes a significant amount of energy to get your waste to Arlington’s Water Pollution Control Plant, where even more energy is required to treat the wastewater.
Why does water use matter to you? Arlington’s water and sewer rates have increased significantly over the past 15 years. These costs mostly increased due to upgrades at the Water Pollution Control Plant to ensure that Arlington’s wastewater is cleaned to meet increasingly stringent standards.
Since energy and water are inextricably linked, using WaterSense toilets (faucets and showerheads, too) saves you money on your water bill, about $110 a year per toilet. This Super Bowl, when you flush, think about tackling that toilet, showerhead, or faucet upgrade by installing high-performance WaterSense fixtures. You’ll score some savings, even if your favorite team doesn’t win!
The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.
Ballston Company Raises $100 Million — Ballston-based Snagajob has announced a $100 million funding round. The company is planning to hire at least 150 new employees for its Arlington and Richmond offices and make some significant acquisitions. [Tech.co]
Democratic Challenger Launches Campaign — Small business owner and Planning Commission member Erik Gutshall formally launched his campaign to unseat Arlington County Board Chair Libby Garvey at last night’s Arlington County Democratic Committee meeting. Gutshall’s primary pitch to Democrats is “responsive, progressive leadership that you can trust.” Garvey upset many Democratic voters by endorsing independent Board member John Vihstadt and campaigning (successfully) to kill the Columbia Pike streetcar project. [InsideNova]
Bikeshare By the Numbers — Critics of Capital Bikeshare are pointing to some system stats to suggest that it’s inefficient and serves a narrow segment of the population, though the reality is a bit more gray. Capital Bikeshare lost 30 cents on the dollar — rider revenue covers 70 percent of operating costs. But that’s not too shabby compared to other transit systems. In terms of operating costs per passenger-mile, Bikeshare is between Metrorail and Metrobus. Critics also point out that 84 percent of Bikeshare members are white while the District’s population is only 44 percent white (and Arlington’s population is 64 percent white). [Daily Signal]
DESIGNArlington Winners Revealed — The 11 winners of the annual DESIGNArlington awards for architectural and landscape projects have been announced. Among the projects receiving a “Merit Award” is the somewhat controversial sewage plant fence art project entitled “Ripple.” [Arlington County]
Flickr pool photo by John Sonderman
An assortment of pipes, wrenches, wheels and pink balls have been attached to the fence separating the Four Mile Run trail from the county’s sewage plant.
These items are part of an art installation by Dutch artist Tejo Remy and his design partner Rene Veenhuizen, who are known for their use of everyday objects to create works of art. The installation, which runs along the fence of the Water Pollution Control Plant on the 3400 block of S. Glebe Road, was completed in the middle of September, said Jim Byers, a spokesman for Arlington Cultural Affairs.
The display runs the length of the sewage plant, transitioning from a sea of pink balls and flat, blue objects to orange wheels and then a series of neon green wrenches and baby blue pipes. The piece starts with a lone pink ball.
“Remy and Veenhuizen’s design ethos stems from a strong industrial design background and building awareness about our connection to the environment,” Arlington Public Arts said in a press release. “Their innovative concept consists of more than 800 linear feet of brightly colored ‘widgets’ that reference the importance of microorganisms in the plant’s treatment processes and shaped fence panels overlaid on the existing fence to create a moiré effect reflecting the movement of water.”
The artwork is part of series of restorations and enhancements being made to the Four Mile Run area, which include work on bike trails and a new pedestrian-cyclist bridge. A ribbon cutting ceremony will be held once all projects are complete, Byers said.
The County Board approved the project in 2012, and $350,000 was allotted for the fence display, which included a $30,000 contingency fund. The project has stayed within that budget, Byers said
“Funding for this Contract is included in the approved $568 million budget for the Master Plan 2001 upgrade and expansion project at the Department of Environmental Services Water Pollution Control Plant,” he said. “The total cost of the fence enhancement project is 0.061 percent of the total of the upgrade and expansion project at the Department of Environmental Services Water Pollution Control Plant.”
(Updated at 1:45 p.m.) Tejo Remy, an artist for the Netherlands whose work has been featured in the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City, is designing a fence for the plant that filters Arlington’s sewage.
The fence surrounds the Water Pollution Control Plant, on the 3400 block of S. Glebe Road, and it will be designed in Remy and design partner Rene Veenhuizen’s style of reusing common objects to create engaging works of art.
“The design-duo’s ethos stems from a strong industrial design background, reusing existing resources rather than consuming new materials, and building awareness about our connection to the environment,” Arlington Cultural Affairs spokesman Jim Byers said. “Remy and Veenhuizen have developed and will implement a compelling, innovative design concept which will serve as a unifying element within the Four Mile Run area, while creating distinct enhancements for the fence at the Water Pollution Control Plant.”
The project is expected in 2015, Byers said. It was approved by the Arlington County Board in April 2012.
Some of Remy’s noted work includes a “chest of drawers” displayed at MoMA and a chair made of rags. He spoke briefly about the fence project this week at an exhibition on Dutch design at the Netherlands embassy in D.C.
Photo (top) via Google Maps, (bottom) courtesy Alan Henney
Senior Citizens Tour Sewage Plant — A group of three dozen senior citizens toured Arlington’s recently-renovated Water Pollution Control Plant on Friday. The sold-out tour educated the seniors about the sewage treatment process and about the people who work at the plant, whose “informal motto” is “We’re No. 1 with your No. 2.” [Sun Gazette]
Technology and the Homeless — Contrary to a common image of the homeless, most homeless individuals in Arlington have a cell phone and some even have laptops. Such technology is described as a “lifeline” to family, job opportunities and education. [Patch]
Map of the ‘Arlington Loop’ — Arlington County’s Bike Arlington program has published an easy-to-use map of the “Arlington Loop” — the 50 miles of off-street bike trails in the county. The map includes approximate ride times for bicyclists. [Bike Arlington, Greater Greater Washington]
Photo courtesy Chris Armstrong