John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
Developing nations have problems with sewage in the water—but so do L.A. and New Jersey.
Credit researchers at Michigan State University and elsewhere for being ahead of Google Maps on this one. They’ve created what they call the first-ever model of “fecal viruses traveling our global waterways,” according to the university.
It wasn’t just gross curiosity driving their pursuit, of course. Because contaminated water is thought to kill more people than all combined forms of violence, they thought it’d be nice to know where it’s most prevalent. Here’s more from the university:
“Many countries are at risk of serious public health hazards due to lack of basic sanitation,” said Joan Rose, Homer Nowlin Chair in water research at Michigan State University. “With this map, however, we can assess where viruses are being discharged from untreated sewage and address how disease is being spread. With that, we can design a treatment and vaccination program that can help prevent sewage-associated diseases.”
The study, conducted by Rose and an international team of researchers, focused on rotavirus, a pathogen found in human sewage, which is suspected of causing more than 450,000 deaths globally each year. Rotavirus severity rates are highest among young children under two. Because the disease spreads quickly—and via water—a deeper understanding of the transmission of rotavirus is key to combating it.
Hotspots of fecal corruption tend to cluster around dense urban areas, including cities in Nigeria and Bangladesh, and along the coast of Brazil. More pristine places are quite removed from civilization, as you’d imagine: Think the steppes of northern Russia and Australia’s outback. But First World countries also have their share of poo in the water, note the researchers in the journal Pathogens: “Even for industrialized regions with high population density and without tertiary treatment, such as the UK, substantial emissions are estimated.”
Because this is a large map, let’s split it into halves. Red areas had “severe” concentrations of the potentially deadly virus in 2010:
A closer look at just the U.S. shows that Los Angeles and New Jersey also made it to the red zone: