SARS and Floor Drains was published in Facility Management Magazine for Client Waterless Co.
We hear the following all the time
- The coronavirus “has changed everything”
- We now are living in a “new normal”
- There likely will be more “new normals” in the future.
Accepting these statements as true, let us start this article a bit different. Most of us remember in high school and college that we would read an article first and then answer questions about it later.
Let us turn things upside down. This time, let’s start with the questions and then read the article. If we are lucky (and good readers), we may learn even more about how SARS spread in Hong Kong thirteen years ago and how this might apply today to the coronavirus.
So, with that said, here are the questions:
The SARS virus is similar to other flu viruses.
SARS and the coronavirus die very quickly when airborne.
Plumbing problems played a crucial role in the 2003 SARS outbreak.
Plumbing problems can play a crucial role in the 2020 COVID outbreak.
A floor drain prevents sewer gasses from being released into a facility.
Today’s U-traps are maintenance-free.
It is possible that SARS was preventable.
In March 2003, a 33-year-old doctor visited his brother, who lived in the Amoy Gardens complex in Hong Kong. This is a massive complex of 19 apartment buildings, all 33 stories high, housing approximately 15,000 residents.
Shortly after visiting with him in Unit 7 on the 16th floor, he developed flu-like symptoms that worsened. Soon after that, his brother and sister-in-law also developed these flu-like symptoms.
The health of all three people became increasingly worse. The doctor soon died with what was later named severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS.
SARS is like other viruses and is a highly contagious respiratory illness. Along with causing classic – but much more severe – flu-like symptoms, it can also result in death.
By April 2003, there were 321 cases of SARS in the Amoy Gardens. The virus dissipated a year later, mainly because China insisted on mask-wearing, social distancing, and forced quarantining. But in its wake, 8,098 people were infected, and 774 people died of the disease.
Along with being highly contagious, we know now that SARS is caused by a coronavirus (CoV) similar in structure to the coronavirus. Another similarity: both viruses initially occurred in animals and then spread to humans.
Further, pathogens from both viruses can become airborne, where they can remain for a few minutes to a few hours, allowing them to be inhaled. 1 This is now considered the primary way that today’s COVID-19 is spread.
Taking a Closer Look at Risers and Floor Drains
Every building has what are called “risers.” These are a supply line, usually made of copper, metal, or plastic, that remove water to water-using fixtures like sinks, restroom fixtures, and showers in a facility.
Each riser connecting to one of these water-using fixtures is fitted with a U-shaped water trap, commonly known as U-traps or P-traps. The primary purpose of these traps is to prevent sewer gasses from being released into the facility.
These traps have not changed much for decades and are found in facilities around the globe. When filled with water, they function properly, blocking sewer and other gasses from being released into the facility.
However, in Block E of the Amoy Apartments in Hong Kong, the water in many of these traps had evaporated. This provided a direct opening to the sewer below. Further, it allowed for the release of sewer gasses and gasses from infected stool in the waste pipe to be released into the apartments.
Ultimately, it was found that the pathogens that caused SARS were found in these gasses. As they were inhaled, victims contracted the disease.
Why this Happened?
Water frequently flows through toilets, sinks, and bathtub drains. As a result, the U-traps for these fixtures works properly because they remain filled with water.
However, each bathroom in the Amoy Apartments had a floor drain installed. Residents told public health investigators that they regularly mopped the bathroom floors, but it was determined that the mopping did not generate enough water flow to fill the U-traps below.
It was also later uncovered that many residents stored items in their bathrooms, often directly over these floor drains. This prevented any water from draining down the pipe and filling the U-trap.
This allowed the infected gasses to be released into the apartments. Making matters worse, investigators reported the following:
“Amoy residents installed window-mounted exhaust fans in most bathrooms. The type and size of the exhaust fan were not, however, dictated by building management. The bathrooms were small (less than 50 square feet each) and, according to WHO, many residents had installed high-powered fans with capacities 6 to 10 times higher than the capacity that would be required for such a small space.” 1
What this tells us is that not only were sewer gasses containing the pathogens that caused SARS being released into the air, they were being pulled into the air by the fans.
Can This Floor Drains Problem Happen With COVID?
In March 2020, professors from Montana State University’s microbiology and immunology department were asked to test the wastewater in Bozeman, Montana, to see if there were traces of COVID-19 in the water.
The professors doubted they would find any vestiges of the disease. However, to their unfortunate surprise, they did find evidence of the virus in four samples over the next ten days.
But how could this be? In Montana, there would be few cases of the virus for weeks, if not months, to come. The professors believe what they uncovered was that many people in the state were already carrying the disease, even in the sparsely populated sections, as early as March. However, they were asymptomatic.
Due to these findings, the university and state public health officials began testing other wastewater sites in the state. They understood that if fumes bearing the pathogens that cause coronavirus from wastewater made its way to dried-out risers in state facilities, it would spread the disease. However, as this is being written, it has not been reported that this is happening.
However, another concern is that these sewer gasses do contain several pathogens that can harm human health. Further, we know that the water in U-traps frequently evaporates. We find this happening when schools close for the holidays and recently because many buildings have been closed due to the pandemic.
What facility managers can do to prevent this from happening – long term – is not to re-fill floor and other drains with water. This is a short-term remedy. Instead, what many are using are inexpensive liquids known as primers or “ever prime.”
These liquids last for months without evaporating and are not impacted by climate extremes.
We could even say that it is very possible that if residents in the Amoy Apartments had poured a few ounces of ever prime in their floor drains two or three times per year, the SARS epidemic would never have occurred.
More articles for client Waterless Co can be found here.
- Different studies have come out with different findings as to how long coronavirus is stagnant in the air. This is a “range” of those findings.
- Kelly R. McKinney, Yu Yang Gong, and Thomas G. Lewis, “Environmental Transmission of SARS at Amoy Gardens,” Journal of Environmental Health68, no. 9 (2006),