The Portland Water District is about to begin testing the city’s wastewater for the presence of monkeypox, influenza A and a common respiratory virus known as RSV.

The testing is part of a national effort to monitor the spread of infectious diseases in the same way wastewater treatment plants around Maine and the country are now testing for the COVID-19 virus.

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Monkeypox particles (red) found within an infected cell (blue), cultured in the laboratory that was captured and color-enhanced at the NIAID Integrated Research Facility (IRF) in Fort Detrick, Md. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases via AP

The East End Wastewater Treatment Plant in Portland will collect three samples each week and ship them to Verily Life Sciences lab, the district said in a statement. Testing will start next week. Results from Portland will be posted at along with results from other communities around the country.

“Results from this project will help Maine CDC better understand the burden of these viruses in our community,” Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Nirav Shah said in a statement.

Because it is part of a national testing effort, there will be no cost to the Portland Water District, the district said. The project is funded through a philanthropic effort and spearheaded by Stanford University, Emory University and San Francisco-based Verily Life Sciences.

Maine has recorded three confirmed cases of monkeypox, while nationally there have been 12,689 cases. Monkeypox is spread through sexual or other close physical contact. So far, most cases have occurred between men who have sex with men, and sex is the largest risk factor, according to recent studies.


Monkeypox symptoms include pimple-like rashes, fever, chills, swollen lymph nodes, fatigue, headache and respiratory problems. It is rarely fatal. The virus is of unknown origin, and was first detected in humans in 1970. The current global outbreak of monkeypox began in May.

Influenza A is one of the common strains of flu that causes seasonal flu outbreaks, and can cause pandemics. RSV is a common respiratory virus that often occurs in children.

Wastewater testing has become a common technique for monitoring the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19, and scientists are now expanding its use to other viruses.  It is considered an accurate way to monitor outbreaks in real time and can provide an early warning when infectious diseases are present and increasing in a community.

People infected with viruses can shed virus into the wastewater that’s flushed into the sewer system through toilets, showers and sinks. Testing samples of wastewater at the public treatment plans can reveal if a virus is present in the community and how prevalent it is.

Scott Firmin, director of Wastewater Services at the Portland Water District, said in an interview that the East End plant was invited by Verily to participate in the project because it met qualifications that include serving more than 50,000 customers. The East End treatment plant serves about 65,000 people, Firmin said. It’s unclear how many other Maine treatment plants might be eligible to be part of the testing, as East End is one of the largest treatment plants in Maine.

Firmin said testing for infectious diseases is an “exciting opportunity” to expand the role of wastewater treatment systems to further serve public health.


“We are starting to build these databases that we can pull information from and make it available so that public health officials better understand the presence of viruses within our communities,” he said.

Firmin emphasized that the Sebago Lake water that the district treats and supplies for drinking and other uses is safe. The testing is done on wastewater leaving the home that ends up at the treatment plant, which sits next to Portland’s East End Beach and discharges into Casco Bay.

Wastewater testing for monkeypox – conducted by the same group – has begun in California, Georgia, Michigan and other states, and aims to ramp up to about 300 testing locations in the United States, according to Kaiser Health News.

Dozens of cities and towns throughout Maine have tested for the presence of COVID-19 in their wastewater, including Portland, Westbrook, Augusta, Bangor, Lewiston-Auburn, Yarmouth and many others.

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