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An early February news story about the work of screening municipal wastewater for COVID-19 variants caught my eye. It featured microbiologists in selected US cities examining wastewater samples and discovering what they termed “cryptic lineages”—mutant variants of the novel coronavirus that have not been previously detected in human specimens. If not from people, how did these variants get into the sewer system? Did they come from asymptomatic people who had not been tested? Were they introduced by rats or other nonhuman animals? The so-called spillover/spillback effect that New York Times journalist Sonia Shah recently reported as threatening to become a source of new variants only underscores the important work on multispecies ethnography over the past decade from scholars Eben Kirksey, Stefan Helmreich, and Barbara King, among others.

With its focus on microbiologists, the Times story did not dwell on the work of wastewater sample collectors, the local government workers or contractors who gather raw sewage-laden water for investigation. This is water flushed down toilets and drained from sinks, showers, and industrial facilities—water containing pathogens and toxins that may cause human health problems or disturb natural aquatic ecosystems. Wastewater surveillance can be an immensely powerful tool in informing possible public health interventions, as it helps us keep tabs on how the coronavirus is evolving, and provides community-level signals about infection trends and appropriate medical responses.

I’m interested in upstream solutions, and the core anthropological concept of holism often directs my attention to those smaller, sometimes less obvious upstream points of intervention where a modest investment can reap big gains. Wastewater sampling is located at just such an upstream point of public health intervention, so promising that the Netherlands instituted a national surveillance system early on in the pandemic, and in the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention put a national program in place that now covers 43 states, cities, and territories.

The quality of the surveillance data directly affects the value to public health officials. This means the people who do the sampling work really need to know what they are doing. Because mistakes are inevitable in every human endeavor, quality checks need to be built into key steps of the wastewater sampling process.

Adjacent to the kind of work that anthropologists Robin Nagle, Kathleen Millar, and Rosalind Fredericks (among others) have been doing for some time now in the world of waste management work, I see an opportunity here for fine-grained observation of how workers interpret and engage with prescribed procedures that cover sampling design, techniques, and equipment as well as measures for the storing, transporting, and preparing of samples for analysis without contamination.

This wastewater sampling is nasty work, and it is vital work. It has made we wonder if, under the conditions of the pandemic-driven “great resignation,” we are seeing public service workers heading for the exits at the same rate as other categories of employees. I think not, mainly because this is work with a purpose. Our colleague Martha Bird, a business anthropologist who is chief of global strategy at the ADP Innovation Lab, notes in an interview with HR Executive that many employees are reassessing the place of work in their lives. “Between the global health crisis and thankfully a growing awareness of historical inequities experienced by racialized communities, people have begun to be either nudged or jolted into questioning some of the assumptions that they’ve held” about values and priorities.

At the same time, data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate that the trend of workers leaving their jobs is not consistent across all sectors. State and local government workers, excluding education, have among the lowest “quit rates” of any sector. Despite the considerable challenges and stresses that come from having to do more with fewer resources, state and local government workers feel the public is more aware of the importance of the work they are doing, which has contributed to a boost in job satisfaction.

The fact that we find it in the public interest to monitor quit rates immediately calls to mind one last reflection, David Graeber’s 2018 book, Bullshit Jobs. This is a book that identifies several kinds of meaningless work, each of which is so pointless and unnecessary that the people engaged in these kinds of work are profoundly unfulfilled, with equally profound societal consequences.

Interestingly enough, Graeber observed that most of these jobs are in the private sector, not the public or NGO sectors. The routine public service provided by people who manage municipal wastewater, for example, falls well outside the “flunkies,” “goons,” “duct tapers,” “box tickers,” and “taskmasters” that embody the pointlessness of the contemporary world of work.

Our anthropological training prompts us to question everything, and I, for one, am grateful for the chance to ponder and appreciate the public good that is served by the people collecting wastewater samples. Their work contributes meaningfully to the control and prevention of infectious disease, along with the misery and untimely deaths it has visited disproportionately among vulnerable communities.


Ed Liebow

Ed Liebow is executive director of the American Anthropological Association.

Cite as

Liebow, Ed. 2022. “Essential Wastewater Work.” Anthropology News website, May 9, 2022.

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