COVID-19: Experts raise alarm about soil and water contamination

Updated: 16 September, 2020 08:10 IST | Vinod Kumar Menon | Mumbai

They say the use of polythene sheets/body bags for burial of bodies of COVID-19 victims and sodium hypochlorite to spray them, could impact the environment; point the need for analysis of the same

WHO guidelines emphasise usage of cloth for burial without using any chemical sprayed as disinfectant
WHO guidelines emphasise usage of cloth for burial without using any chemical sprayed as disinfectant

Research scientist and health experts including environmentalists are concerned about the usage of sodium hypochlorite on polythene sheets/body bags and dead bodies of covid 19 victims, before wrapping them for burial, as these plastic bags and chemical may have adverse impact on both the soil and microorganisms beneath, which cannot be ruled out, until a regular soil sampling for research and analysis is done, to prevent any adverse long-run impact on the environment and the ecosystem.

It is a known fact that polythene would take decades and centuries for degrading, and any chemical like sodium hypochlorite sprayed may increase the soil pH level, which needs to be studied regularly to understand if it has any short term or long-term impact in future on microorganism and even plants. Instead, experts are of the view that we must follow WHO guidelines, as they emphasize the usage of cloth for burial without using any chemical spayed for disinfectants.

A senior scientist working in this area, requesting anonymity said, "It is a known fact that polythene and polythene sheets will remain in the soil for decades together before it gets degraded and it will surely have an adverse impact. However, the immediate concern would be using sodium hypochlorite on dead bodies and polythene sheet/body bags, which might increase the pH level of the soil, and will have a direct impact on earthworms and even the plants within the initial few years. And such an impact may or may not be favorable for the ecosystems of the surrounding areas, which can be monitored only through appropriate periodical analysis by soil scientists."

The scientist added, "We are dealing with such a pandemic for the first time, and if such analysis, are not done from now, we may miss on crucial data, for analysis, in future. Hence it is important for maintaining regular records, of all such burial areas, where COVID 19 bodies have been laid to rest, and if analysis findings are showing adverse impact, then, either way, the polythene sheets can be removed, and scientifically disposed off, instead of keeping them inside, for decades together, causing further ecological damage."

"The pandemic has also shown, how polymer can be used for making a face mask, face shield, and even the PPE kits for better health care system, thereby preventing the spread of the COVID 19 virus. And the very polymer was earlier looked as an environmental health hazard," the scientist concluded.

Dr. Ashok Patra, Director - ICAR – Indian Institute of Soil Science (IISS), Bhopal, whose department carry out soil analysis, for the agricultural sector in the country said, "The concern raised about the ecological impact of using a chemical like sodium hypochlorite on plastic sheets and dead bodies, need to be looked into, but the fact remains polythene sheets/body bags may take years and years for degrading inside the soil."

When informed about the pH level of soil, likely to get impacted due to Sodium hypochlorite chemical, Dr. Patra, said, "Though we also conducted Environmental studies related to agriculture, this is a new area of concern, which may be looked into."

Dr. Jiyalal Jaiswar, former Scientist, CSIR- National Institute of oceanography said, "Though the plastic used for wrapping the dead bodies due to Corona Virus, is nondegradable and may take 1000 years to degrade, still we must know scientifically what would be the future impact on soil, groundwater adjacent marine water. It is therefore important scientific analysis and research of the grave and nearby soils should be done immediately, and documented to know the future impact, and can use for future reference, as and when it happens decades or century later, as this practice will have long term repercussion on the soil and the environment."

Dr T Jacob John, 84, known globally for his extensive work in the fields of virology and paediatrics, who headed the ICMR Centre of Advanced Research in Virology and the National HIV/AIDS Reference Centre, at the Christian Medical College, Vellore, where he set up the country's first diagnostic virology laboratory, tells why he feels so,

"I am not an expert on the environmental issues raised in your question. But let me ask why even one plastic sheet or bag is necessary to wrap a dead body of a person who died of Covid? Neither WHO nor other concerned agencies have recommended body to be bagged," said Dr John.

"Excessive fear among people, driving them to behave in great anxiety of virus transmission by physical closeness to a dead body even when properly dressed in culturally accepted norms, is the result of lack of public education by the Government. We humans have certain values that dictate that dead bodies be treated with dignity, bereaved family members be given opportunity to see the face of the deceased, and be present for last rites and cremation/burial. Let not a virus rob us humans of our humanity. Crowding must be avoided as part of prevention of transmission between the living, and is not a part of dignified last rites," Dr John added,

As for adding non-biodegradable plastic and unnecessary chemicals in the earth -- commonsense dictates that it is overkill by the under-informed and must be avoided, concluded Dr John.

Interestingly, Dr Wiqar Shaikh, Senior allergy and Asthma specilalist, "A scientific research needs to be done, to analyise the extend of soil contamination, if any happen to the grave where bodies sprayed with sodium hypochlorite, with multi-layer plastic sheets sprayed with disinfectants, and its impact on the microorganisms s and insects which is otherwise known for playing a pivotal role in degrading the corpse."

Stages that body go through once buried

"Also we have to wait to watch, the level of soil contamination, if any, especially during the monsoon time, when the groundwater level is always high and usually body takes a longer time for decomposition. Also, we have to monitor, the impact of the flowing groundwater, from these graves to the other water bodies, and under groundwater pipes, as if unmonitored, this can lead to not only water contamination but also have adverse impacts on the natural water reservoirs," Dr. Shaikh concluded.

Dr Ketan Vagholkar, Professor of Surgery, DY Patil Medical College, said, "Decomposing, a human corpse, produces, 0.4 to 0.6 litres of Leachate, per kilogram body weight, this contains, all sorts of bacteria, and viruses. The survival strength of COVID 19, is different under a variety of physical and chemical environment, if the corpse is not buried with care, it can happen that, pathogens, in addition to COVID, which are present in the dead body, could contaminate aquifers by negatively impacting, the quality of groundwater. In addition to this, toxic chemicals like sodium hypochlorite and the polyethylene sheets, which are used to decontaminate, the dead body before burial, could also release into the groundwater, adding to the contamination. Even medical waste, from the treatment of COVID 19 patients are usually shrouded in secrecy, this can also pose, challenges through the purity of groundwater, depending on the level of aquifer depth. These three factors, need to taken into consideration and studied in a scientific perspective of environmental protection, before deciding areas for mass burial.

Dr Vagholkar added, "In the current unprecedented time, the quantum of these toxic waste can easily overwhelm normal mechanisms of environmental protection, this can eventually lead to another very dangerous, environmental catastrophe. Therefore enough timely research and scientific studies need to be done, in the field of hydrogeology, to understand the effect of such burials, soil contamination, if any, and impact of the same on microorganisms and the environment as a whole."

"There are so many unknowns about the effects of universal use of sodium hypochlorite used as Viricidal chemical and plastic bags on our ecosystems. The soil scientists should participate in control programs of this pandemic so that soil research Is undertaken by them simultaneously. With over 81,000 reported COVID-19 deaths in India, and Mumbai city alone has lost over 11,000 of these numbers, the debate is raging about the dignity of final rites of dead ones," said, Dr Subhash Hira, Professor of Global Health at the University of Washington-Seattle, USA and health advisor to several UN, Indian and African health agencies.

Recent lessons learned from 11,300-odd Ebola deaths that occurred in six African countries between March 2014 and October 2016 should guide the world rather than reinventing the wheel. During that focused epidemic of Ebola in Liberia, Guinea, Sierra Lione, Nigeria, and DR Congo, last rites of dead bodies were ordered to be done by cremation due to several reasons, namely, opposition by local communities against opening up of new burial grounds near their villages because of fear that it will cause Ebola soil contamination of their farmlands and ground-water filling up the water supply in community wells, lack of trained persons who could handle the infectious burial process using set protocols and yet maintaining the dignity of the departed soul, and the time is taken for burial process was too long that lead to large queues lasting several days of delay in burying their loved ones, etc, said Dr Hira.

"Subsequently in 2019 when Ebola deaths reduced to occasional sporadic deaths, countries decided to return to burial policy after having trained burial staff in infection control techniques and revisiting coffin designs," Dr. Hira concluded.

Nicholas Almeida, trustee of Watch Dog Foundation said, "In Sahar Village, itself over a hundred plus people have died due to COVID, and final rites were done according to their religious belief. As per norms, the bodies were wrapped in polythene sheets and sprayed with sodium hypochlorite and final rites, done, without getting the bodies to village."

Advocate Godfrey Pimenta, trustee of watchdog foundation, said, "We must understand that we will have to survive with Covid 19, hereafter, moreover death will remain inevitable, but the practice of using polythene and chemical for disinfecting the body, should be done away with, to prevent any adverse impact of these hazardous chemcials on the soil and microorganisms, moreover there is a need to be soil study from these burial areas, to check if there is any adverse reaction, of the polythene and corrective measures should be taken, before it is too late. And authorities should now come up with biodegradable materials and should also be sensitive towards protecting environment, amdist covid pandemic."

Sages of decomposition

Dr Wiqar Shaikh, senior allergy and asthma specialist
Dr Wiqar Shaikh, senior allergy and asthma specialist

Dr Wiqar Shaikh, when a human being die, the body undergoes, four stages of decomposition, after it is buried – stage 1 is autolysis, which begin immediately after death, the body contain carbon di oxide (Co2) in its various tissues this Co2 ruptures the body cells, thus releasing enzymes, which destroy the cells within 24 to 72 hours after death (1 to 3 days).

The second stage is the stage of bloating, in which the enzymes leaked by the cells, in stage 1, produce gases, this enables bacteria to enter the dead body and due to the bacterial contamination and gases, the body doubles in size, which takes (3 to 5 days) after death. In the stage of bloating insect activity begin and the skin starts peeling off.

The third stage is the stage of active decay, in which fluid released by the body, begins active decay, soft tissues decompose, hair, bones, cartilage also begin to decompose, and the cadaver loses most of its mass. It takes anything from eight to ten days after death.

Stage 4 is skeletonization, in this stage soft tissues, and organs are all lost and only the skeleton remain, this stage happens a month after death and end almost one and half year.

From stage 2 onwards the following insects present in the soil are known to consume the mortal remain – maggots, which are of two varieties – blowflies, and flesh flies, and their larvae. Both these maggots, lay eggs in the body orifices and in open wounds, each maggot deposit 250 eggs, which hatch, within24 hours and this gives rise to further maggots, they feed on rotting flesh and these maggots transform to adult flies. Maggots can consume up to sixty percent of a human body, within seven days.

The second insect that is known to consume the human body, are beetles, which are of two varieties in the grave American Carrion beetles and brown bettle.

The third variety of insects, which can consume human remains are mites, moths, wasps, and crickets, of these the most aggressive insects in consuming human remains in the grave maggots and it has been scientifically proved, that maggots can eat plastic. A hundred maggots can eat up to 92 milligrams of plastic in one night, besides, bacteria present in the grave can also degrade plastic. Those COVID dead bodies, which are wrapped in black coloured plastic sheets, or in body bags, can be degraded by these maggots and bacteria.

Interestingly, Dr Shaikh pointed out that the above scenario, is standard practice, however, scientific research needs to be done, to analyse the extend of soil contamination, if any happen to the grave where bodies sprayed with sodium hypochlorite, with multi-layer plastic sheets sprayed with disinfectants, and its impact on the microorganisms s and insects which is otherwise known for playing a pivotal role in degrading the corpse.

"Also we have to wait to watch, the level of soil contamination, if any, especially during the monsoon time when the groundwater level is always high and usually body takes a longer time for decomposition. Also, we have to monitor, the impact of the flowing groundwater, from these graves to the other water bodies, and under groundwater pipes, as if unmonitored, this can lead to not only water contamination but also have adverse impacts on the natural water reservoirs," Dr. Shaikh concluded.

Expert ask why body should be wrapped in polythene

Dr T Jacob John, noted virologist
Dr T Jacob John, noted virologist

Dr T Jacob John, 84, known globally for his extensive work in the fields of virology and paediatrics, who headed the ICMR Centre of Advanced Research in Virology and the National HIV/AIDS Reference Centre, at the Christian Medical College, Vellore, where he set up the country's first diagnostic virology laboratory, tells why he feels so,

"I am not an expert on the environmental issues raised in your question. But let me ask why even one plastic sheet or bag is necessary to wrap a dead body of a person who died of COVID?

Neither WHO nor other concerned agencies have recommended the body to be bagged.

What is wrong with regular cloth cover?

The SARS-CoV-2 infection is transmitted either by inhalation of droplets shed while breathing, talking, cough, or sneeze or by "fomites". As the dead body does not shed any droplets at all, droplet transmission by inhalation cannot occur.

Fomite transmission is a virus picked by touch from contaminated surfaces and by self-inoculation in the eye or nose. As the face of the dead person is very likely to have a residual virus from when the person was alive, kissing is too risky and must be avoided. Preparing of the dead body should use minimum handling, but there may be unavoidable procedures as cultural or religious norms.

When washing, attendants must wear protective equipment, including apron, mask, and gloves, and avoid splashing of water. Disinfectants on the body are not necessary. The body can be placed in a coffin, face exposed. Anyone touching the body or covering cloth, or combing or tidying hair, must observe strict hand-hygiene. Burial is safe as also cremation. The virus in the body also dies as body cells die. Organ transplants have taught us that body organs/tissues/cells do continue to be 'somatically viable' for some hours. After that, no live cells, no live viruses.

The precautions appropriate for hemorrhagic fevers like Crimean-Congo fever or Ebola are not necessary for COVID, as it is essentially respiratory transmitted.

Excessive fear among people, driving them to behave in great anxiety of virus transmission by physical closeness to a dead body even when properly dressed in culturally accepted norms, is the result of lack of public education by the Government. We, humans, have certain values that dictate that dead bodies be treated with dignity, bereaved family members are given the opportunity to see the face of the deceased, and be present for last rites and cremation/burial. Let not a virus rob us humans of our humanity. Crowding must be avoided as part of the prevention of transmission between the living and is not a part of dignified last rites.

As for adding non-biodegradable plastic and unnecessary chemicals in the earth -- commonsense dictates that it is overkill by the under-informed and must be avoided, concluded Dr. John.

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First Published: 16 September, 2020 06:22 IST

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