COVID Chemistry

The role of environmental chemists in studying disease outbreaks
May 29, 2020

Researchers in various biomedical fields have taken center stage in efforts to understand how the SARS-CoV-2 virus functions and spreads and how to prevent and treat the disease, with a vaccine being a major goal. Environmental chemistry researchers are also playing a crucial—but sometimes overlooked—role in handling the COVID-19 pandemic and other possible future disease outbreaks.

A new paper published in the journal Environmental Chemistry Letters explores some of the ways in which the environmental chemistry field is crucial to studying, treating and preventing disease outbreaks. Lead author of the paper, Virender Sharma, PhD, professor in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Public Health at the Texas A&M School of Public Health, describes how environmental factors such as pollution and climate change could affect disease outbreaks and how environmental chemistry is a crucial part of understanding how pandemics like COVID-19 occur and evolve. For example, climate change can increase risks of food-borne and water-borne illnesses and air pollution can dramatically affect the immune system.

Sharma and colleagues described several areas where environmental chemists can improve knowledge of disease outbreaks. COVID-19 is thought to be spread through aerosolized droplets, though there is some uncertainty about the survival of those droplets on different surfaces. Environmental chemistry deals extensively with the fate of airborne particles such as aerosols, particulate matter and dust, so the field is well-suited to studying factors involved in virus transmission. Virus survival on solid surfaces is another crucial issue, and environmental chemist are acquainted with driving factors of this such as material composition and pore size. The researchers note that future research on how different materials and environmental factors affect virus survival will be important.

Another area the researchers highlighted is the potential for viruses to spread on food products, which has received relatively little attention. Research on how SARS-CoV-2 and other viruses survive on food and how to mitigate contamination and spread through monitoring and packaging are a few areas Sharma and colleagues note as being vital for health and safety. The potential for spread through water and wastewater is another realm that environmental chemists are poised to explore. SARS-CoV-2 has been detected in sewage and little research has been done on how effective wastewater treatment is at eliminating the virus. The researchers highlight a need for evidence-based recommendations for using disinfectants and newer wastewater treatments such as those using light. Additionally, studies in this field should cover as wide a variety of viruses as possible.

The research areas and directions for further study that Sharma and colleagues identify in their paper show how environmental chemistry can play a unique and valuable role in countering disease outbreaks now and in the future. Additionally, increased collaboration between environmental chemists and researchers in various biomedical fields will be helpful in understanding, preventing and treating disease outbreaks. As the current pandemic continues, researchers in these fields will have more opportunities to further explore many different aspects of the disease. With a better understanding of how viruses interact with the environment, the world’s scientific and medical experts have a greater chance of handling COVID-19 and preventing or mitigating future pandemics.

— Rae Lynn Mitchell

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