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Frequently Asked Questions - Building Water Safety in Response to COVID-19

  1. Due to COVID-19 “stay-at-home” orders, commercial buildings may now have reduced or no water use.
  2. Water in shutdown or low occupancy buildings will stagnate and get old. This water could become unsafe for use.
  3. Harmful organisms like legionella can grow in plumbing if the water stagnates. Unsafe levels of lead and copper can also be found.
  4. There are 5.6 million non-residential buildings in the U.S. These include: education facilities such as schools and college buildings, daycares, lodging, offices, places of worship, event venues, retail (i.e., shopping malls), libraries, museums, restaurants, healthcare, and other facilities.
  5. Utilities, building owners, and health officials can take several immediate actions to help prevent water from becoming unsafe.
  6. When buildings reopen, a process called recommissioning can be performed, in which the plumbing can returned to normal use.
  7. Occupancy may not reach 100% immediately – a period of low-use may continue. Actions to return plumbing to normal may need repeating as building occupancy increases.

SHORT-TERM

  1. Develop communication materials to distribute to building owners to inform them how COVID-19 may impact water quality in the distribution system.
  2. Communicate to owners of large buildings about the need to maintain fresh water in plumbing.
  3. Consider flushing water mains that serve commercial districts where buildings currently have low occupancy or are not being used.
  4. Consider analyzing distribution system disinfectant residual data to identify portions of the system that are under-used to help target flushing. Temporarily expanding monitoring locations may better inform actions.
  5. Ask building owners to report low or no water pressure to you immediately.

LONGER-TERM

  1. Prioritize restoring water service to buildings for decommissioned health facilities, clinics, and long-term care facilities, and buildings serving vulnerable populations such as early childhood education facilities.
  2. Consider continuing to flush water mains that serve commercial districts where buildings currently have low occupancy or are not being used.
  3. Consider analyzing distribution system disinfectant residual data to identify portions of the system that are under-used to help target flushing. Temporarily expanding monitoring locations may better inform actions.
  4. Coordinate building recommissioning so low pressure and depressurization do not occur when buildings become reoccupied.
  5. Ask building owners to report low or no water pressure to you immediately.

SHORT-TERM

  1. Determine the threshold that would prompt the public health authority to require restrictions on water use in buildings with low or no occupancy such as: Handwashing Only, Do Not Drink Water, Do Not Use Water.
  2. Prepare communication materials for building owners to distribute to occupants regarding water quality in buildings with low or no occupancy. These may include signs to post at water outlets to alert occupants about the status of the plumbing.
  3. Identify and alert regional labs immediately about a potential surge in the need for metals and harmful organism analysis.
  4. Make certain they possess trained personnel, tools, and resources to assist society with re-occupancy efforts.
  5. Prepare to deliver guidance to building owners and managers re-occupying buildings. Create a checklist for building water system re-occupancy approvals.
  6. Recommend building owners refresh their plumbing by flushing fixtures to bring in fresh water. This can help prevent harmful organisms from growing in plumbing, and dispose of water with unacceptable levels of lead and copper.
  7. Prepare to assist building owners assess potential health risks. This includes determining whether to require water testing, when and to collect water samples to assess human health risks.

LONGER-TERM

  1. Prioritize oversight of water being restored to decommissioned health facilities, clinics, and long-term care facilities, and buildings serving vulnerable populations.
  2. Notify building owners about the process the public health authority has established for certifying or consenting to plumbing use where there’s been low or no occupancy. Not all buildings, or even of the same type, will undergo the same process for restoring water quality.
  3. Determine the threshold that would prompt the public health authority to require recommissioning actions such as flushing, fixture cleaning, disinfection, as well as chemical and microbiological testing.
  4. Prepare to deliver guidance to building owners and managers re-occupying buildings. Create a checklist for building water system re-occupancy approvals.
  5. Remind regional labs about a potential surge in the need for metals and harmful organism analysis.
  6. Reconfirm the Health Department possesses trained personnel, tools, and resources to assist society with re-occupancy efforts.

SHORT-TERM

  1. Contact their government environmental public health departments for advice about building water safety.
  2. Communicate information provided by the health department to your building occupants.
  3. Consider refreshing your plumbing by flushing fixtures at least weekly. This new, fresh water can help prevent harmful organisms from growing in plumbing. This can also dispose of water with unacceptable levels of lead and copper.
  4. Contact a plumber or engineer for assistance.

LONGER-TERM

  1. Contact government environmental public health departments for advice about building water safety.
  2. Consider refreshing your plumbing by flushing fixtures at least weekly as this new, fresh water can help prevent harmful organisms from growing in plumbing. This action can also dispose of water with unacceptable levels of lead and copper.
  3. Contact a plumber or engineer for assistance in addition to the health department.
  4. Recognize that not all buildings, or even of the same type, will undergo the same process for restoring water quality.
  5. Communicate information provided by the health department to your building occupants.

Funding for this work was partially supported by each organization employing the authors as well as a U.S. National Science Foundation RAPID response award CBET 202749, the Lillian Gilbreth Fellowship Program at Purdue University, and U.S. National Science Foundation award CBET 1705206.

The report made publicly available April 7, 2020 was been submitted to a peer-reviewed scientific journal that same day and is undergoing peer-review. Several practitioners in the water utility and public health sectors reviewed the document and provided feedback before submission to the journal.

A preprint is a copy of what was submitted to the journal. The authors chose to make that file available be of the urgency in getting this information into the hands of decision makers including health officials. The COVID-19 pandemic is prompting growing risks of unsafe water in buildings. Actions must be taken now to prevent waterborne disease outbreaks that could be caused by low or no water use in large buildings. The preprint file has a DOI (digital object identifier): https://doi.org/10.31219/osf.io/qvj3b

Proctor CR, Rhoads WJ, Keane T, Salehi M, Hamilton K, Pieper KJ, Cwiertny DM, Prévost M, Whelton AJ. Considerations for Large Building Water Quality after Extended Stagnation. Preprint downloaded April 7, 2020. Available for download at DOI: https://doi.org/10.31219/osf.io/qvj3b.

All authors for this study contributed substantially. Each brings their own expertise in assisting building owners decontaminate and restart plumbing after nonuse, conducting plumbing related disease outbreak investigations, and answering questions received from local, state, federal agencies and nonprofit organizations about policy. The authors also applied their expertise in public health and disaster communications, building water system design, management, and troubleshooting knowledge. Questions about authorship should be directed to Dr. Andrew Whelton, awhelton@purdue.edu

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