Article from Pete DeMarco, Executive Vice President of Advocacy and Research at IAPMO. Pete looks at the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19) from one person to another on different floors of a Hong Kong high-rise.
Sadly, with the current coronavirus outbreak in Hong Kong, history seems to have repeated itself. According to the Associated Press, a 2016 Hong Kong Housing Department policy change has allowed tenants in certain high-rise apartments to alter the pipe design in their bathrooms without requiring an inspection by a plumbing official, causing the problem that might have helped spread COVID-19. In one of the apartment units, the vent pipe was completely disconnected inside the bathroom, apparently by the occupant, which provided a pathway for contaminated air to enter the apartment, especially when the bathroom ceiling fans were activated. When health officials became aware of this problem, the building was evacuated, hopefully limiting the number of additional illnesses among building residents.
Can the COVID-19 coronavirus be spread in high-rise buildings in the United States in a similar manner? In short, the answer is yes, but unlikely. Due to U.S. plumbing codes, any modification to a building’s water, waste or vent system must be performed by a qualified professional and necessitates an inspection by a code official. In addition, wastewater stacks and vent pipes are typically hidden behind walls in high-rise buildings, reducing the opportunity for residents to easily cut into pipes and create unsafe conditions.