Coronavirus spread through pipes? Strange, but true.  Provided those pipes are drain and vent stack pipes.

As reported by CNN a high-rise apartment building in Hong Kong (Hong Mei House) has been evacuated as a precaution due to several cases of Coronavirus (COVID-19) infections.  That is viewed by some as extreme, but there were important clues the virus could have been transmitted through damaged or improperly modified pipes.  The reported cases were above and below one another, and in at least one apartment the vent pipe had been disconnected and left open.  Transmission might have been through other vectors, such as elevator buttons, but in a densely populated area there’s good reason not to take any chances.

What’s the Problem?

Why are those clues important?

All drains and toilets connect to a sewer line.  You might not know it even exists, but that line has a vent pipe that goes up to the roof to get rid of odors and harmful sewer gasses.  In a high rise building those sewer and vent lines run vertically down to ground level or below.  If everything’s functioning properly there’s no problem.  But any openings can release gasses and disease organisms that may have entered from a sink or toilet (COVID-19 may be present in feces), allowing viruses to become airborne again.  Especially with a bathroom or kitchen exhaust fan pulling in air.  Health officials determined that this was actually a significant source of transmission for SARS.

What’s the Risk?

With the potential to become a pandemic, the Chinese government is taking aggressive measures to contain the corona virus outbreak.  Related to the common cold, this coronavirus spreads is more easily than SARS or MERS, but fortunately far less deadly with mortality rates ranging from less than 1/4% nation-wide to just under 5% in Wuhan  itself.  Plus it’s far less contagious than measles.

So for those in the United States it’s always good practice to follow flu-prevention measures such as hand washing and putting the toilet seat down before flushing.  But there’s no reason for panic or extreme measures.

What You Should Do About Coronavirus and Plumbing

There are also some things you can do to make sure your plumbing is up to grade as a precaution against infections diseases in general.  A plumbing inspection with attention to drain, sewer, and vent lines is always a good idea.

Have you noticed a U-shaped pipe under a sink?  U-traps (sometimes J-traps) hold water that forms a seal between the sink and the drain line and vent.  With only occasional use or a leak there might not be any water there to do the job.  So for rarely used sinks, tubs, and showers as well as floor drains and toilets run some water from time to time.  And if you smell a foul odor coming from these fixtures it’s time to call a plumber.

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