Has COVID-19 increased water pollution?


Rama Pulicharla

Department of Civil Engineering, Lassonde School of Engineering, York University, North York, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, ramapuli [at] yorku.ca (subject: IWA%20World%20Water%20Day%20Blog%20Spot)


The 2019 Coronavirus outbreak spread to the majority of countries worldwide and infected more than 460 million people, of whom approximately 6 million sadly died. More than half of the world’s population experienced a lockdown which led to unprecedented reductions in economic activity. COVID-19 led to a reduction in overall human enterprise as pandemic-related restrictions caused interruptions to transportation and travel (water, air, road), commercial activities (fishing, etc.), the industrial sector (limited production, operations), agricultural practices and social activities (eating, shopping, gathering, etc.). This disruption to the world’s commercial markets produced environmental benefits, such as improvements in water and air quality, which have become a focus for some researchers (1,2).

I am a senior researcher at York University Toronto, Canada. I hold a Bachelor’s degree, a Master’s degree in pharmaceutical sciences and a Ph.D. in Water Science from University du Quebec. My research interest lies in monitoring contaminants of emerging concern (CEC) in water sources and their subsequent removal. My specific research area includes validating and developing analytical methods for environmental matrices, chemical/biodegradation of contaminants, and waste management. During the pandemic, I became interested in the effect of COVID-19 on water pollution, and I am pleased to share my findings on World Water Day.

Several published reports investigated the effect of the pandemic on surface water quality and observed a significant improvement in the Water Quality Index of Rivers (3,4). The reduction of agricultural and industrial activities resulted in less surface water run-off and discharge of wastewater which is primarily responsible for the improved water quality in developing countries. Furthermore, restricted water travel and activity meant less fishing and noise pollution from ships which contributed to the enhanced water quality index as  it reduced oil spillage incidents and marine disruption.

On the other hand, the pandemic has forced the public, especially healthcare workers, to use face masks made from plastics. Their disposal was not regulated or monitored, leading to a significant environmental footprint. These masks can reach surface water and potentially affect the downstream environment. Certain water quality reports have highlighted these anthropogenic activities as critical drivers which affected the quality and quantity of water sources (4,5). The improvement in the air quality trend (for example, declining ambient concentrations of NO2, O3, and particulate matter2.5) was similar to that of water quality. Further, a significant reduction in solid and water waste (sludge/landfill) during the pandemic led to less soil pollution (6). Exploring the pandemic’s effect on the possible exchange of persistent pollutants across the air-water-soil interface has given a new direction to research into the mutual dependence of all environmental compartments.

Interestingly, wastewaters related to surface water pollution gained tremendous attention during the pandemic due to the presence of the COVID-19 virus and its potential propagation through water sources (7). Numerous studies highlighted the importance of COVID-19 tracing in wastewater samples and found a positive correlation with the hike in infection rates. This led to sensitive methods for accurate monitoring of the virus in wastewater/water samples (8). There is also a correlation between the presence of COVID-19 in wastewater and infection rates which is used for the early detection of infection/ virus mutations (9). Some countries were able to implement strict rules to curb the infection rates through using wastewater surveillance for COVID-19 (10). However, no articles were published focusing on the change in the influent load for wastewater treatment plants and their treatment efficiency during the pandemic. In addition, the restriction of wastewater influent and effluent sampling during the peak of the pandemic led to a lack of real-time data recording on contaminants of emerging concern (CEC).

Moreover, during the pandemic, health units were mainly focused on controlling the COVID-19 crisis, which took its toll on the pollution of wastewater. Importantly, the overuse of antibiotics by infected patients might have increased their residual levels in the environment (11). In addition, the pandemic has caused a rise in mental illness such as anxiety and depression which may have increased general over-the-counter (OTC) drug usage, such as pain killers (Anti-inflammatory OTC) (12). Furthermore, in some cases mental health issues have led to over-cleanliness which may have also increased the use of disinfectant agents and their consequent residual load on wastewater (12). On the other hand, the closure of restaurants, shopping malls, hotels, and reduced industrial activities has resulted in a decrease in wastewater discharge, leading to less water pollution. This was explicitly witnessed in highly urbanized areas with massive population and industrial activities (13).

Surprisingly, the steep slowdown in human activity led to a significant environmental recovery which could not have been achieved by simply applying existing regulations or restrictions in the water and air sectors. Now, it’s time to take advantage of this opportunity and sustain the improved water quality through recently innovated research methods (14,15). We are all aware of the importance of sustainable water treatment for maintaining a healthy ecosystem and even so, we have been polluting for decades by releasing chemical compounds. Hopefully, the lessons we have learnt throughout the pandemic will allow us to reduce our environmental footprint in the post-pandemic era.  



1. Loh, H. C., Looi, I., Ch’ng, A. S. H., Goh, K. W., Ming, L. C., & Ang, K. H. (2021). Positive global environmental impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown: a review. GeoJournal, 1-13.

2. Mousazadeh, M., Paital, B., Naghdali, Z., Mortezania, Z., Hashemi, M., Karamati Niaragh, E., Aghababaei, M., Ghorbankhani, M., Lichtfouse, E., Sillanpää, M.  (2021). Positive environmental effects of the coronavirus 2020 episode: a review. Environment, Development and Sustainability, 23(9), 12738-12760.

3. Liu, D., Yang, H., Thompson, J. R., Li, J., Loiselle, S., & Duan, H. (2022). COVID-19 lockdown improved river water quality in China. Science of The Total Environment, 802, 149585.

4. Najah, A., Teo, F. Y., Chow, M. F., Huang, Y. F., Latif, S. D., Abdullah, S., Ismail, M. & El-Shafie, A. (2021). Surface water quality status and prediction during movement control operation order under COVID-19 pandemic: Case studies in Malaysia. International Journal of Environmental Science and Technology, 18(4), 1009-1018.

5. Sarkar, S., Roy, A., Bhattacharjee, S., Shit, P. K., & Bera, B. (2021). Effects of COVID-19 lockdown and unlock on the health of Bhutan-India-Bangladesh transboundary rivers. Journal of Hazardous Materials Advances, 4, 100030.

6. Loh, H. C., Looi, I., Ch’ng, A. S. H., Goh, K. W., Ming, L. C., & Ang, K. H. (2021). Positive global environmental impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown: a review. GeoJournal, 1-13.

7. Godini, H., Hoseinzadeh, E., & Hossini, H. (2021). Water and wastewater as potential sources of SARS-CoV-2 transmission: a systematic review. Reviews on environmental health.

8. Pulicharla, R., Kaur, G., & Brar, S. K. (2021). A year into the COVID-19 pandemic: Rethinking of wastewater monitoring as a preemptive approach. Journal of Environmental Chemical Engineering, 9(5), 106063.

9. Fernandez-Cassi, X., Scheidegger, A., Bänziger, C., Cariti, F., Corzon, A. T., Ganesanandamoorthy, P., Lemaitre, J. C., Ort, C.; Julian, T. R., & Kohn, T. (2021). Wastewater monitoring outperforms case numbers as a tool to track COVID-19 incidence dynamics when test positivity rates are high. Water Research, 200, 117252.

10. Panchal, D., Prakash, O., Bobde, P., & Pal, S. (2021). SARS-CoV-2: sewage surveillance as an early warning system and challenges in developing countries. Environmental Science and Pollution Research, 28(18), 22221-22240.

11. Miranda, C., Silva, V., Capita, R., Alonso-Calleja, C., Igrejas, G., & Poeta, P. (2020). Implications of antibiotics use during the COVID-19 pandemic: present and future. Journal of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy, 75(12), 3413-3416.

12. Bai, S., Guo, W., Feng, Y., Deng, H., Li, G., Nie, H., ... & Tang, Z. (2020). Efficacy and safety of anti-inflammatory agents for the treatment of major depressive disorder: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials. Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry, 91(1), 21-32.

13. Chowdhuri, I., Pal, S. C., Arabameri, A., Ngo, P. T. T., Roy, P., Saha, A., A., Ghosh, M., & Chakrabortty, R. (2022). Have any effect of COVID-19 lockdown on environmental sustainability? A study from most polluted metropolitan area of India. Stochastic Environmental Research and Risk Assessment, 36(1), 283-295.

14. van Vliet, M. T., Jones, E. R., Flörke, M., Franssen, W. H., Hanasaki, N., Wada, Y., & Yearsley, J. R. (2021). Global water scarcity including surface water quality and expansions of clean water technologies. Environmental Research Letters, 16(2), 024020.

15. Carey, C. C., Woelmer, W. M., Lofton, M. E., Figueiredo, R. J., Bookout, B. J., Corrigan, R. S., Daneshmand, V., Hounshell, A. G., Howard, D. W., & Thomas, R. Q. (2021). Advancing lake and reservoir water quality management with near-term, iterative ecological forecasting. Inland Waters, 1-14.

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