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Calgary engineer develops portable wastewater sampler that tests for COVID-19

Peter Caulfield
Calgary engineer develops portable wastewater sampler that tests for COVID-19

Paul Westlund, a Calgary engineer who specializes in water treatment technologies, has created a portable sampler/monitor, about the size of a briefcase, that can sample wastewater for evidence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that’s causing the COVID-19 pandemic.

Its small size makes the monitor especially useful at locations where it can be difficult to gain access, such as work camps.

“Because the virus can be detected early in wastewater, even before clinical swabbing tests, it is a valuable monitoring strategy in such locations,” said Westlund. “After all, these places directly impact the provincial and national economies.”

In February, Westlund went to a remote camp in northern Ontario where he monitored the operation’s wastewater for COVID-19.

“It is one of the first organizations in Canada to do this,” he said. “I installed a number of samplers and developed a tailored sampling strategy for early warning detection. I’m confident this will become a new standard practice in Canada to make sure workers are safe and operations can continue working without interruption.”

Here’s how Westlund’s device works.

When someone becomes infected with COVID-19 or one of its variants, particles of the virus are shed and excreted in that person’s waste, more specifically in the stool.

“The infection takes time to develop in the body, and during this time the infected individual sheds the viral particles and continues to do so throughout the infection,” said Westlund. “When an individual feels fine but is actually infected is what we call the asymptomatic period. This is where wastewater detection becomes very important.”

While most nostril swab tests have a difficult time detecting the virus in the early stages of infection, viral particles in wastewater are easy to find because they are so abundant.

“That is one of the reasons why fecal swab tests are starting to become a more frequent practice,” Westlund said.

Monitoring wastewater for the virus can be integrated into existing workplace COVID management strategies.

“It’s an inexpensive and non-intrusive method of early warning detection,” Westlund said. “The healthier the community, even a small part of it, the healthier the economy.”

The company that produces the sampler, which Westlund has dubbed CA101, is called C.E.C. Analytics Ltd., short for Contaminants of Emerging Concern.

Westlund said the business is both a technology provider and a niche analytics firm.

“We want to help communities and we do this by studying emerging contaminants in wastewater that enable us to understand the public health of communities in Canada,” he said. “When the pandemic started, I was aware that wastewater could play a significant role in tracking and monitoring the spread of the virus in communities.”

In addition to identifying and tracking viruses such as SARS-CoV-2, Westlund said C.E.C. can monitor pharmaceuticals and antibiotics and other contaminants that might not be regulated.

“By monitoring these substances found in wastewater we can tailor the type of intervention response and community outreach programs that are best,” he said.

Westlund said the main reason he invented the CA101 sampler was to make the technology available to as many organizations as possible.

“Many institutions and municipalities can’t afford standard wastewater sampling equipment because it is so expensive,” he said.

In addition, to detect the spread of viruses in a community, more than one sampler is needed, adding to the expense.

“CA101, on the other hand, is roughly one-fifth the cost of commercially available samplers,” said Westlund.

Besides being inexpensive, the C.E.C. sampler has other advantages.

“Because of their size, standard samplers can’t operate everywhere,” said Westlund. “But our sampler is small and lightweight, which means you can use it in locations that were thought to be inaccessible.”

Examples include work camps, hospitals, schools, dormitories, long-term care homes, lift stations, manholes, military camps, cruise ships and airports.

“We start off by selecting the best access point in a sanitary line to collect the samples,” said Westlund. “Traditional samplers cannot enter small pipes without running the risk of clogging them up. Because the sampler is small, it is discrete and out of sight if the sanitary line access point is located in a building hallway or a parkade.”

The sampler has a capacity of only one to two litres, which makes it easier and safer to collect and handle samples, he added.

Traditional samplers collect between 10 and 24 litres, although laboratories need only between one ml and 200 ml for COVID-19 analysis.

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