Understanding the Ecological and Environmental Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic

Questions to Ask Now to Prepare for the Future

November 3, 2020

COVID-19 has had widespread and immediate effects on human health and global economies. To mitigate the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, governments around the world enacted legislation, industries implemented new policies, and the general public dramatically changed their daily habits. While these measures have helped reduce the spread of COVID-19, they will almost certainly have far-reaching unintended consequences for our natural environments.

For example, one factor in reducing the risk of exposure to SARS-CoV-2 relies on effective cleaning and disinfection. Although it is not recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO), many cities and countries have attempted to disinfect large outdoor public spaces. In the United States, national and state agencies are grappling with techniques to disinfect public outdoor areas using safe and effective methods. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has currently approved 432 disinfectant products for use against SARS-CoV-2. However, very few of those are appropriate for large-scale spraying on public surfaces. Additionally, because of the size and physical characteristics of most outdoor spaces, the effectiveness of disinfection has been called in to question. City, state, and national agencies are currently navigating the challenges of proper and effective application of disinfectants, and it remains to be seen what the short- and long-term environmental effects of these large-scale applications may be.

Considering possible implications of the COVID-19 pandemic on the environment now will help governments, industries, and individuals prepare for future scenarios. Using our knowledge of environmental and ecological sciences, we pose a series of questions related to environmental implications of responses to the COVID-19 pandemic that should be considered by government health care professionals, municipalities, industries, as well as individuals, such as the following examples:

1) How do changes in environmental regulations and monitoring impact liability and enforcement? In turn, how may these changes impact short- and long-term ecological and environmental health? The COVID-19 pandemic has directly impacted environmental regulations through changes to federal and state regulatory requirements. Changes have been made to regulatory enforcement and have hindered various state agencies’ abilities to maintain environmental monitoring programs as a result of diverting available funds for other necessary activities or budget cuts.

2) Will the use of biocides and disinfectants meant to eradicate SARS-CoV-2 negatively impact non-target organisms in terrestrial and aquatic environments, including microbial communities, and how does the choice of biocide, its persistence, its utilization, and environmental factors influence the effects of those applications? Entire countries and individual cities are disinfecting streets and other public spaces with biocides to prevent the transmission of SARS-CoV-2. Disinfectants may break down into by-products or combine with other chemicals in the environment, which could cause concern.

3) Can environmental genetic monitoring methods be used to evaluate some of the negative impacts of COVID-19 on the environment (i.e., the efficacy of cleaning and disinfecting methods and transmission of the virus through water and wastewater systems)? Researchers can detect genetic material (RNA) of SARS-CoV-2 in the environment, for example on high-touch surfaces and in sewers. Wastewater monitoring is already being used to help track trends in prevalence of the virus in some populations. However, it remains less clear how the application of genetic methods for detecting SARS-CoV-2 in other types of environmental samples may help researchers understand the spread of COVID-19, predict hotspots of infection, or inform action to reduce its spread.

How Exponent Can Help

Exponent's multi-disciplinary expertise in chemical regulation, food safety, and environmental, ecological, and health sciences allows us to assess the full range of environmental, occupational, and public health issues that face our clients and the world. We can perform ecological and environmental risk assessments and support the development or evaluation of methods for analyzing ecosystem health. We also provide guidance to help clients improve their safety and response practices regarding ecological and environmental impacts from a variety of sources, including those we may soon see as a result of responses to the current pandemic. With Exponent’s decades of experience working with regulatory agencies at the state, national, and international levels, we are positioned to provide expert assistance on the emerging issues resulting from the current COVID-19 pandemic.

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