Wastewater Surveillance and The Law: A Grey Area

May 25, 2022

Over the past two years, wastewater-based epidemiology—or what is more commonly known as wastewater surveillance—has emerged from the shadows. Once a field criticized for its imprecision, today the field is touted by biomedical researchers and public health officials as an essential tool for predicting and managing disease outbreaks, such as COVID-19.

While scientists have worked to refine methods of data collection and analysis, and public health officials have developed policies and practices to translate and use this data for decision-making and programming purposes, little attention has been paid to understanding the legal framework within which this operates, or the potential challenges that may arise for its future applications.

This is all the more concerning given the ways in which wastewater surveillance practices are already transforming. For example, wastewater surveillance has been used to monitor for illicit substances, raising possible criminal law questions. It has also been used to surveil small populations, such as at a college residence or worksite, raising potential privacy law concerns.

As an urban geographer and legal scholar, Wall Scholars Mohammed Rafi Arefin and Bethany Hastie found—through conversations at PWIAS—that the quickly developing field poses a series of legal questions and potential challenges that have yet to be addressed. Together, their research explores the grey areas of wastewater surveillance legality in Canada. 

They’ve identified potential sites of concern, both in its current and future applications, and mapped whether, and how, current laws governing topics like privacy, police powers, and employment, provide an existing framework for wastewater surveillance, and what legal gaps remain. 

Arefin and Hastie see this work as important because oftentimes legal rules or practices developed during emergencies may crystallize in the long-term, without the rigour typically attending the process of law-making. In the longer-term, this project aims to craft a wastewater “bill of rights”, which would clearly identify and delineate the rights and duties attending the uses of wastewater surveillance in Canada.