Around the world people are staying inside, keeping their distance from others, washing hands and sterilizing surfaces in hopes of slowing the spread of COVID-19. To understand why these measures are necessary and what others might need to be taken, it helps to understand how the virus travels from the human body to surfaces and other humans. This insight can be provided by environmental engineers, according to Charles Haas, PhD, LD Betz professor of environmental engineering at Drexel University and a leader in the development of microbial risk assessment techniques.
Haas recently published a call for these experts to lead research into how the new coronavirus travels in the air, persists on surfaces and can be transmitted directly from sneezes and coughs. Insight provided by environmental engineering could guide mitigation efforts at home, in public spaces and health care settings, he suggests in the journal Environmental Engineering Science.
“Although [the COVID-19 pandemic] has resulted in a rapid mobilization of resources from the medical and public health communities, there are major roles to play for those of us in environmental engineering and science (EES),” Haas writes. “EES researchers and practitioners have strong quantitative skills in describing how contaminants move from sources (infected individuals), transport and decay in the environment (in the air, on fomites), and ultimately result in exposure to a receptor (susceptible individual).”
Using environmental engineering models that are commonly used to calculate the risk of contaminants spreading in various environments and situations, from accidental chemical releases, to lead or algal blooms affecting water supplies, researchers can begin to understand how long COVID-19 could exist in the environment.
Experts know that the coronavirus travels through the air, in tiny particles emitted in sneezes and coughs, and in slightly larger particles that land on surfaces and can persist for hours to days. But understanding patterns in that movement and exploiting them to contain the spread of the virus is where environmental engineers can shine, according to Haas.
He notes that existing data about SARS and other coronaviruses could be used as the baseline for modeling the behavior of COVID-19. And many of the same tools that have been used to reduce the risk of microbial contamination — namely, air filtration, ventilation and inactivation using ultraviolet light — could prove to be effective for mitigating the spread of COVID-19.
As the pandemic has progressed, Haas has offered his guidance on risk assessment in a number of news stories about traveling on public transit, using expired hand sanitizer and drinking tap water. His commentary is intended to encourage fellow environmental engineers to lend their expertise to the public conversation about COVID-19.
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