Disinfection threatens aquatic ecosystems

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Science  10 Apr 2020:
Vol. 368, Issue 6487, pp. 146-147
DOI: 10.1126/science.abb8905

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Disinfectants used to combat the spread of COVID-19 will end up in the environment.


In an effort to contain the spread of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), China has been applying chlorine disinfectants to both indoor and outdoor spaces. To minimize opportunities for the severe acute respiratory syndrome–coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2)—the virus that causes COVID-19—to thrive, China has dispensed at least 2000 tons of disinfectants in Wuhan City alone (1). These chemicals can get into sewage systems and pollute drinking water resources (1). Both the direct runoff and indirect sewage effluents will eventually end up in lakes and rivers, putting aquatic ecosystems at risk (2).

Chlorine disinfectants threaten aquatic plants and wildlife in two ways. First, chlorine can directly harm organisms by destroying their cell walls or damaging their proteins by oxidation (2). Second, the chemicals in the disinfectants can bond with other materials to form harmful compounds. In surface water, dissolved organic matter is extremely high (3), which could allow the synthesis of disinfection by-products, such as trihalomethanes or haloacetic acids (2). These by-products have been shown to be very toxic to aquatic organisms (4). In addition, disinfectants could combine with nitrogen, forming chloramine or N-nitrosodimethylamine (5), both of which have been identified as carcinogens (6).

As COVID-19 spreads across the globe, the increased use of disinfectants could lead to worldwide secondary disasters in aquatic ecosystems. We appeal to the governments of China and other affected countries to conduct aquatic ecological integrity assessments (7) during and after the pandemic. This could save biodiversity and protect humans from future health threats stemming from polluted water.

References and Notes

Correction (21 April 2020): The volume of disinfectant dispensed by China in Wuhan City has been corrected. The referenced records indicate that China has dispensed at least 2000 tons, not more than 5000 tons.

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