Water in Unused buildings during pandemic needs attention
When water isn’t flowing, organisms and chemicals can build up in the plumbing. It can happen in underused gyms, office buildings, schools, shopping malls and other facilities. These organisms and chemicals can reach unsafe levels when water sits in water pipes for just a few days. But, what happens when water sits for weeks or months?
There are no long-term studies of the risks and only minimal guidance to help building owners prepare their water for use again after a long shutdown.
Just like food that sits in a refrigerator for too long, water that sits in a building’s pipes for too long can make people sick.
Harmful organisms, like the bacteria that cause Legionnaire’s disease, can grow. If not maintained, devices like filters, water tanks, heaters and softeners can become organism incubators.
With certain pipe materials, water can accumulate unsafe levels of lead and copper, which can cause learning disabilities, cardiovascular effects, nausea and diarrhea.
Copper can leach from plumbing pipes and valves and Built up water can contain copper from pipes, which can cause illnesses if ingested.
Drinking this water is a problem, but infections can also result from inhaling harmful organisms. This occurs when water splashes and becomes an aerosol, as can happen in showers and pools and when flushing toilets or washing hands. Some of these organisms can cause pneumonia-like diseases, especially in people who have weakened immune systems.
Water inside a building does not have an expiration date: Problems can develop within days at individual faucets, and all buildings with low water use are at risk.
Keep the water flowing
To avoid water issues, “fresh” water must regularly flow to a building’s faucets.
Medical facilities, with their vulnerable populations, are required to have a building water safety plan to keep water fresh and prevent growth. Schools, which have long periods of low use during the summer, are advised to keep water fresh to reduce water’s lead levels.
The key thing to do here is to not let water sit in buildings.
If water isn’t being used in a building, intentionally flushing the building to replace all the old water with new water can be done at least weekly. It also helps remove sediments that accumulate along pipe walls.
Easier to avoid contamination than clean it up
For building managers who haven’t been running the water during the pandemic, the water sitting in pipes may already have significant problems. To perform flushing, safety equipment, including masks, currently in short supply, might be needed to protect workers.
A slow “ramp-up” of the economy means buildings will not reach normal water use for some time. These buildings may need flushing again and again.
Shock disinfection, adding a high level of disinfectant chemical to the plumbing to kill organisms living in it, may also be necessary. This is required for new buildings and is sometimes done when water in new buildings sits still for too long.
Cut-open shower pipes reveal a biofilm with metal deposits.
Building managers can test their water for bacteria and metal deposits.
Inexpensive chemical disinfectant tests can help determine if the water is “fresh.” Testing for harmful organisms is recommended by some organizations. It can take several days and requires expertise to interpret results. Metals testing might be needed, too. Public health departments can provide specific recommendations for all of these actions and communication of risks.
The need for standards and water safety
Water left sitting in the pipes of buildings can present serious health risks.
Standards are lacking and very much needed for restarting plumbing and ensuring continued water safety after the pandemic passes.
Right now, building managers can take immediate action to prevent people from becoming sick when they return. more
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