Assessment of sewer connectivity in the United States and its implications for equity in wastewater-based epidemiology

PLOS Glob Public Health. 2024 Apr 17;4(4):e0003039. doi: 10.1371/journal.pgph.0003039. eCollection 2024.


Wastewater-based epidemiology is a promising public health tool that can yield a more representative view of the population than case reporting. However, only about 80% of the U.S. population is connected to public sewers, and the characteristics of populations missed by wastewater-based epidemiology are unclear. To address this gap, we used publicly available datasets to assess sewer connectivity in the U.S. by location, demographic groups, and economic groups. Data from the U.S. Census' American Housing Survey revealed that sewer connectivity was lower than average when the head of household was American Indian and Alaskan Native, White, non-Hispanic, older, and for larger households and those with higher income, but smaller geographic scales revealed local variations from this national connectivity pattern. For example, data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency showed that sewer connectivity was positively correlated with income in Minnesota, Florida, and California. Data from the U.S. Census' American Community Survey and Environmental Protection Agency also revealed geographic areas with low sewer connectivity, such as Alaska, the Navajo Nation, Minnesota, Michigan, and Florida. However, with the exception of the U.S. Census data, there were inconsistencies across datasets. Using mathematical modeling to assess the impact of wastewater sampling inequities on inferences about epidemic trajectory at a local scale, we found that in some situations, even weak connections between communities may allow wastewater monitoring in one community to serve as a reliable proxy for an interacting community with no wastewater monitoring, when cases are widespread. A systematic, rigorous assessment of sewer connectivity will be important for ensuring an equitable and informed implementation of wastewater-based epidemiology as a public health monitoring system.

Grants and funding

This project has been funded (in part) by contract 200-2016-91779 with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (to YG). The findings, conclusions, and views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.