JOHN trained at Saltcoats Burgh in the late 60s. After a decade he moved to PD Beatwaste Ltd/ Wimpey Waste Management Ltd. He then joined the Civil Engineering Dept at Strathclyde University before posts at Renfrew, Hamilton, Inverness and East Ayrshire Councils. A Fellow of CIWM, he served on their Scottish Centre Council from 1988-2009. He is a Fellow of the Royal Environmental Health Institute of Scotland and was their President between 1991-92.

Tracking and tracing….?

WHEN I heard that the Government’s app for tracking and tracing COVID-19 contacts wasn’t working properly, it took me back to my public health training days when all we had were paper forms. Being honest, we never had to deal with anything on this scale. A lot of the more interesting stuff involved detective work but there was less possibility of people giving false names, telling porkies about where they’d been and who they’d been with, as can happen today.

In my home town there were sporadic outbreaks of a strain of salmonella paratyphoid, a food-poisoning organism that thankfully isn’t usually life- threatening. But who was spreading it? There didn’t seem to be any link between the sufferers. Only an off-hand remark suggested a link with local anglers who fished the River Garnock.

The river runs under the town centre and water samples taken only tested positive in the downstream side of the bridge. Closer inspection showed a leak in a sewer suspended to the bridge and from there a series of backtracking samples

were taken from sewerage manholes over time that eventually led to a block of eight houses.

All the families were asked for personal samples and one matriarch came up positive. She’d never had any symptoms of the disease (nor had any of her family) but she was obviously a carrier so she promised that she’d never take a job that involved food handling or preparation. It took around eighteen months to track and trace her.

Many years later my boss was travelling back on the ferry after working on the Island of Arran. He was short on his quota for water samples so took one from the ship’s drinking supply. We had a phone call from the bacteriologist soon after to say she’d spotted pseudomonas aeruginosa in the petri dish. It isn’t a food-poisoning organism but if it gets into a cut, it could cause a nasty infection for any crew who lived on board. So we had the ferry taken out of service, and made the crew clean out, sterilise and refill the storage tanks. A further sample proved negative so the ship went back into service.

A week later a follow-up sample showed positive for the bug so we had to go through the same rigmarole. This time the sample failed, so it was back to square one. We spent a lot of time trying to work out what was happening until my boss asked the crew to show him how they refilled these tanks? They took him down to the car deck and pointed to a hose that was lying in the well beside the floor, where all the liquid drained from cars and trucks (all the livestock on the island travels by cattle float)!

So the hose was replaced with a clean one, a new storage area was provided for it and all samples were negative after that.

It’s a great pity we can’t sort the COVID-19 pandemic so easily.


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