Political Ecologies of Surveillance: the history and contemporary politics of wastewater epidemiology

Authors: Mohammed Arefin*, University of British Columbia
Topics: Urban Geography, Environment, Geography and Urban Health
Keywords: COVID-19, waste, infrastructure, sewage, surveillance
Session Type: Virtual Paper
Day: 4/8/2021
Start / End Time: 8:00 AM / 9:15 AM
Room: Virtual 40
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Urban sanitation infrastructures are tasked with the enormous challenge of collecting, treating, and removing or recycling waste. Discards are necessarily produced by urban life, but if left unmanaged stifle the livability of cities and arrest the circulation of people and capital. Wastewater in particular poses a particularly noxious threat to sanitized imaginations of what a modern city should look and smell like. Sewer systems have for a long time been infrastructures of removal, quickly removing threatening substances from the city. But in recent years, biomedical researchers and city officials have redefined sewers not only as infrastructures of removal, but also as vast reservoirs of public health data. New technologies have given researchers the ability to study a city’s population through the microbial life of sewers. The rapidly expanding field of wastewater epidemiology has reframed sewage from a dirty incidental into an untapped river of information. From detecting polio outbreaks, to identifying opioid overdose hotspots, to now locating COVID-19 infections, wastewater epidemiology is ushering in a dramatic shift in the relationship between waste, health, and urban governance with important implications for surveillance and privacy. In this paper, I examine these shifts through the analysis of a specific object: the autosampler. Autosamplers take constant and measured samples of wastewater which are then sent to a lab for analysis. Serving as the infrastructural interface between sanitation systems and the laboratory, the autosampler is an overlooked but vital link that exists at the heart of this readily emerging field.

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