By Althaf Marsoof –
The decision of the Sri Lankan Government to cremate bodies of COVID-19 victims has been (and still is) a controversial one, giving rise to both legal and scientific concerns. I have dealt with the legal concerns, particularly regarding the extent to which the Government’s decision impacts fundamental rights guaranteed under the Constitution of Sri Lanka, in a publication elsewhere (Marsoof 2020). But here, I deal with the views expressed by Prof. Meththika Vithanage, who strongly believes that bodies of COVID-19 victims ought not to be buried. In an article published in April 2020, she claims:
“Although WHO recommendation guidelines suit temperate countries mainly, not tropical high-temperature high rainfall countries where we experience high decomposition rates and highly variable water table. This is where the local hydro-geological knowledge is essential to protect groundwater as well as forthcoming infection occurrence. Given the vulnerability of our groundwater aquifers, and lack of understanding about the behavior of COVID-19 virus, there can be a risk from dead bodies, septic waste or sanitary waste are having any contact with water sources.”
I am no scientist, but out of curiosity, I took a look at the sources she had cited to reach her conclusion. Based on a reading of those sources, I make the following observations from a purely layman’s point of view.
1. Prof. Vithanage begins by stating “Burial in any means causes soil contamination and then leads to groundwater pollution via the discharge of inorganic nutrients, nitrate, phosphate, ammonia, chlorides etc. and various microorganisms.” From what I understand, however, viruses such as COVID-19 are not regarded as microorganisms. This distinction is an important one, as viruses cannot survive for long without a host, and evidence suggests that “coronaviruses are more rapidly inactivated in water and wastewater at ambient temperatures” (Gundy et al 2009). Therefore, Prof. Vithanage’s statement reproduced above is seemingly contradictory to her main thesis.
2. The issue of microbial/viral contamination of groundwater isn’t a new issue. Interestingly, the first source Prof. Vithanage cites concludes that “[t]here are indications that the inactivation rate of viruses is the single most important factor governing virus transport and fate in the subsurface.” (Azadpour-Keeley and Ward 2005, 41).
However, when the above finding is considered in light of a more recent peer-reviewed publication, it appears that the risk of COVID-19 contaminating groundwater and remaining infectious is extremely low, if not nil in light of the climatic conditions in Sri Lanka:
“The data available suggest that: i) CoV seems to have a low stability in the environment and is very sensitive to oxidants, like chlorine; ii) CoV appears to be inactivated significantly faster in water than non-enveloped human enteric viruses with known waterborne transmission; iii) temperature is an important factor influencing viral survival (the titer of infectious virus declines more rapidly at 23°C–25 °C than at 4 °C); iv) there is no current evidence that human coronaviruses are present in surface or ground waters or are transmitted through contaminated drinking-water” (La Rosa et al 2020).
3. Prof. Vithanage cites a peer-reviewed article dealing with “Effects of Climate and Sewer Condition on Virus Transport to Groundwater” (Gotkowitz et al 2016). It appears that by doing so, Prof. Vithanage is trying to draw a parallel between sewer systems and burial grounds – to claim that conditions at burial grounds could result in contamination of groundwater. While this analogy may be reasonable, what must be noted is that the same study makes the following finding:
“Unexpectedly, a severe regional drought occurred during the initial months of this project, resulting in reduced infiltration through the vadose zone, an increase in soil temperature, and low water table elevation. We suggest that these conditions inhibited virus transport from sewers to the water table, resulting in a low virus detection rate, 3.7%, compared to a 2008 study at some of the same sites and wells” (Gotkowitz et al 2016, 8502).
This finding is significant, as it opens up the possibility of using land in the dry zone of Sri Lanka, where the soil temperature is higher and the water table is lower, for the purposes of burying victims of COVID-19.
4. Next Prof. Vithanage cites a peer-reviewed paper on the “Impact of cemeteries on groundwater contamination by bacteria and viruses” (Zychowski and Bryndal 2015). However, this paper does not claim that bodies of victims infected with a virus should not be buried. It merely makes a number of recommendations pertaining to the location and nature of cemeteries and precautions that those who handle dead bodies should take. As such, this reference does not support her claim that bodies of COVID-19 victims should not be buried.
5. Next, Prof. Vithanage cites a report of the WHO’s regional office for Europe, which deals with the impact of cemeteries on the environment and public health. However, the said publication merely provides recommendations pertaining to factors that must be taken into account in determining places to be used as cemeteries – and in no particular sense suggests that bodies of those who died of viral infections should not be buried. In fact, the report goes on to state that “viruses are fixed to soil particles more easily than bacteria and they are not carried into groundwaters in large numbers” (WHO 1998, 8), which significantly dilutes Prof. Vithanage’s claim about viral contamination of groundwater.
6. Prof. Vithanage cites two further sources that seek to link cemeteries as a source of groundwater contamination. The first study is by Oliveira et al (2012), where the authors observe that “the most critical parameters when assessing the pollution potential of a burial ground are inhumation depth, geological formation, depth of the water table, density of inhumations, soil type and climate.” Again, this paper makes recommendations of factors that authorities must consider before selecting areas to be designated as cemeteries. Nothing in this paper suggests that bodies of those who die of viral infections such as COVID-19 ought not to be buried.
The second study by Abia et al (2019) focuses solely on cemeteries as a source bacterial contamination of groundwater. Therefore, this study does not help Prof. Vithanage’s claim as regards the COVID-19 virus.
7. As a final point, and quite strangely, Prof. Vithanage cites a study by Morgan (2004) titled “Infectious disease risks from dead bodies following natural disasters”. However, in this study the author observes:
“Disposal of bodies should respect local custom and practice where possible. When there are large numbers of victims, burial is likely to be the most appropriate method of disposal. There is little evidence of microbiological contamination of groundwater from burial”
Clearly, it is unclear how Morgan’s study in any way supports Prof. Vithanage’s claim that bodies of victims who die of COVID-19 should not be buried. In fact, it supports the exact opposite – that scientifically there is no objection in burying bodies despite such bodies being a potential source of infectious disease.
The seven points set out above demonstrate that there are some grave errors and contradictions in Prof. Vithanage’s claim that bodies of COVID-19 victims ought not to be buried in view of the potential risk of groundwater contamination. If Prof. Vithanage’s claim is based on the sources she has cited in her April publication, then, her claim is extremely difficult to justify.
Of course, I make these remarks as a layman to the field of science and, therefore, I am open and willing to be corrected. But on the face of it, it seems to me that Prof. Vithanage’s claim attracts no support from the very authorities she uses to support her claim. And indeed, if her claim is true, the focus must not merely be limited to the disposal of bodies of COVID-19 victims but should extend to the management of waste from hospitals where COVID-19 patients are treated and sewage from residences where COVID-19 patients are quarantined and reside. After all, these are all possible sources from which groundwater may be contaminated!
Abia AKL et al 2019. Microbial life beyond the grave: 16S rRNA gene-based metagenomic analysis of bacteria diversity and their functional profiles in cemetery environments. Science of the Total Environment, vol 655: 831–841.
Azadpour‐Keeley A and CH Ward 2005. Transport and survival of viruses in the subsurface—processes, experiments, and simulation models. Remediation-the Journal of Environmental Cleanup Costs Technologies & Techniques, vol 15: 23-49.
Gotkowitz MB et al 2016. Effects of Climate and Sewer Condition on Virus Transport to Groundwater. Environmental Science & Technology, vol 50: 8497-8504.
Gundy et al 2009. Survival of Coronaviruses in Water and Wastewater. Food and Environmental Virology, vol 1: 10-14.
La Rosa G et al 2020. Coronavirus in water environments: Occurrence, persistence and concentration methods – A scoping review. Water Research, vol 179: 1-11.
Marsoof A 2020. The Constitutionality of Forced Cremations of COVID-19 Victims in Sri Lanka. People’s Rights Group of Sri Lanka, 8 November 2020 [online].
Morgan O 2004. Infectious disease risks from dead bodies following natural disasters. Rev Panam Salud Publica, vol 15: 307-312.
Oliveira B et al 2013. Burial grounds’ impact on groundwater and public health: an overview. Water and Environmental Journal, vol: 27, 99-106.
Vithanage M 2020. Science behind burying the COVID-19 infected dead bodies. The Sri Lankan Scientist, 7 April 2020 [online].
Zychowski J and T Bryndal 2015. Impact of cemeteries on groundwater contamination by bacteria and viruses – a review. Journal of Water and Health, 13: 285-301.
*Dr, Althaf Marsoof – Assistant Professor of Law and REP Fellow, Nanyang Business School, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore