Now that Ebola is subsiding, the question is what to do with contaminated sewage

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Marco Werman: For some better news on the Ebola front, let’s turn to neighboring Liberia. The good news there is that Liberia has just had a full week without any new Ebola infections. But even as the situation appears to be improving, a new problem has emerged: what to do with the thousands of tons of Ebola-infected sewage still being stored at treatment centers. My colleague, the BBC’s Mark Doyle, is in Liberia and he’s been trying to find out what officials are planning to do with all that sewage.


Mark Doyle: I’m not sure actually that anybody knows for certain, but the Liberian Water and Sewage Corporation boss, a guy called Frank Castle, said that they have capacity in a big holding tank which they’ve got, which is an old sewage works, for two million gallons of Ebola poo, not to put too fine a language on it because that’s what it is and that’s what they’re going to be transferring from  various treatment centers to one place where it will be, they say, held safely.


Werman: What does Monrovia’s sewage plant look like? Does it instill confidence?


Doyle: Not a huge amount of confidence in terms of what it looks like but the people who are running it I think are good people. This, of course, is a completely unprecedented situation anywhere in the world, so international help is required. Organizations like the World Health Organization, are helping with medical and testing kits, telling them how long this poo will be dangerous for. Everyone thinks that Ebola poo only remains dangerous, as it were, for seven days, that’s the guess. But like everything in this unprecedented outbreak, no one can be certain and so they want to store it all in one place and try and keep it safe. But I have to say there are vegetable fields around this place, so I hope it doesn’t seep into the ground, and of course with the best will in the world, even if you control the people with a fence, albeit a relatively flimsy fence, there are still animals and no one quite knows where they will be able to pick this stuff up, and then birds might fly, or geckos or lizards might move around on the ground.


Werman: Seems like a lot of windows of opportunity for this thing to spread. So, you’ve got to move these big plastic tanks filled with this Ebola poo, how do the people of Monrovia feel about that? Are people talking about the possibility of one of these trucks crashing or leaking if they do get it transported?


Doyle: I’m sure people are worried about every aspect of this business. In fact, I can tell you that just a few days ago the first transfer actually did take place somewhere in Monrovia to this treatment center. The Ebola poo gets transferred into big tankards and then the tankards roll through town, and the idea is that they’re not allowed to stop because there might be some danger if they were to stop. So, they go through town, they go through the depot, and that’s where it’s offloaded and put into this huge tank. There will be safety teams on standby in case anything happens to any of the lorries, but the lorry that I saw was a spanking new International Committee of Red Cross tankard, which didn’t look like it was likely to break down. There was some debate about whether they should have sirens or police cars accompanying these tankards and so on, but I think on the whole they decided that that was probably not a good idea because that would create more fear and suspicion than just the tankard rolling through Monrovia.


Werman: There are some odd parallels with how Japan is trying to figure out what to do with its nuclear waste. Both very risky propositions.


Doyle: Yes, this is, in some ways, the biological equivalent of nuclear waste being trundled through Monrovia, but it’s only almost the biological equivalent because, as I say, I certainly wouldn’t want to create any panic and suggest that this stuff is incredibly dangerous. The government and the aid agencies think that it’s probably okay but they’re just being double-sure by moving it all to one place where they can keep an eye on it.


Werman: This problem with the Ebola poo, it’s just one of those post-crisis problems. Are there other challenges that you’ve seen that West African countries are facing in trying to return to normal.


Doyle: Absolutely. This crisis really put ordinary life on hold in all three countries and indeed it’s still on hold in many senses. Just take, for example, schools--the schools were supposed to reopen about a month ago in Liberia and in fact I originally went to Liberia to do a story about the reopening of the schools. Unfortunately, that was postponed because they decided that they hadn’t yet distributed all of the things that they needed to to all of the individual schools, including buckets so that the kids can wash their hands in a chlorine solution, thermometers to measure the temperature of the children as they come into school because if you have a temperature above 38 degrees then it’s considered a potential risk. Awareness is certainly very high amongst ordinary people, that measuring temperature and keeping an eye on everyone’s health is very, very important.


Werman: My colleague at the BBC, Mark Doyle. Thank you for the update, Mark.