Could COVID -19 Make Buildings Sick Too?

Jun 1, 2020

Scientists are warning about potential water contamination in buildings that have been shut down in the wake of Coronavirus. With no people there, washing and flushing, stagnant water sitting in the pipes could cause bacteria to grow, making people sick.

It’s something to watch out for, not something that has yet been identified in this pandemic, but as this team of scientists puts it, ‘Coronavirus might make buildings sick too.’ Virginia Tech Research Scientist, William Rhoads collaborating with scientists from Purdue University, put out a new paper that warns, the water trapped in buildings’ water pipes, is getting old.                                                                                                                                                   

“It's kind of come on everyone's radar now because it's so widespread, that people aren't using the water in buildings.”


Turns out, buildings actually rely on people using the water and moving it through the pipes to keep it fresh and clean; A kind symbiosis between buildings and their people.


“If you're a manager of a building or an owner of the building, you can be thinking, well, ‘what's the relative risk factor of my building? Do I have a big, complicated plumbing system? And if so, what are the steps that I need to take to do the best that I can, to maintain the water quality?”


Rhoads says, for smaller buildings, running the water until you can get a steady hot and a steady cold confirms that fresh water has replaced what had been sitting in the pipes.


Moving water is healthy water and when it stagnates, bacteria such as the one that causes deadly legionnaires disease, can grow and if conditions are right, it can infect people who use that water.  We don’t yet know if this will become a major problem as the country re-opens.



“There are some buildings that can be fully occupied that have problems. It’s really dependent on the buildings. The concern is that this kind of longer stagnation that many buildings are experiencing now will increase the probability that they'll have water quality issues.”  


And those water quality issues affect people differently.  Not unlike Coronavirus itself, people with risk factors like compromised immune systems, diabetes, or H-I-V, to name a few, are more likely to become infected by waterborne bacteria that can cause illness.  And while not every building with stagnant water will make people sick, Rhoads says it’s important to get the warning out to building managers and provide information about what could happen, in order to prevent problems.

Here are some guidelines on how to prevent the problem from the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Engineers, known as ASHRAE.