February 19, 2021 - Podcast

Episode 93—COVID testing, and sustainability

For many, COVID-19 testing has been the key to helping people stay safe. Now, a team of Indiana University researchers is working to create a breath-testing device similar to a Breathalyzer, which tests blood alcohol levels. The new testing device could immediately detect if someone has COVID-19. Led by IUPUI researcher Mangilal Agarwal, the team is using previous research on dogs who use their sense of smell to alert people about hypoglycemia. The team is developing a sensor that would identify the scent in breath altered by COVID-19. Researchers are collecting breath samples from people who have tested positive, including asymptomatically, and negative for COVID-19 and are looking to identify the metabolic pathways the virus causes. Not only would the test be accurate, Agarwal says, but it would be relatively inexpensive.

In other news, the COVID-19 pandemic has slowed down or reversed progress in multiple areas of our lives. Janet McCabe and Gabriel Filippelli, both with IU’s Environmental Resilience Institute, say one of the many disturbing impacts of the pandemic is the backsliding in hard-won progress on sustainability practices, both personal and civic. More takeout meals mean more disposable waste, including Styrofoam, single-use plastic, and plastic bags. And concern for spread of the virus through touchable surfaces means more single-use condiments, retailers refusing to refill customers’ reusable coffee mugs, and grocery stores telling customers not to bring reusable bags. And of course, there are the tens of millions of single-use masks and disinfecting wipes that were not part of the typical pre-pandemic product stream. While these changes might be short-lived, the IU researchers fear that people may be reluctant to return to more sustainable ways. The researchers say it is understandable that during a crisis like the pandemic, norms are abandoned, including habits of riding the bus, recycling and prioritizing low-waste food, all while mountains of Amazon delivery boxes pile up in the garage. But they say we can avoid more damage if we are mindful and prioritize new supply chains, new practices, and a new philosophy toward consumption. Transit systems, for example, are absolutely essential to many of our most vital economic centers, especially to people who don’t own cars, and are part of the effort to address climate change. Transit cannot be a casualty of COVID, McCabe and Filippelli say. Additionally, they say reduction in single-use plastics and recycling must increase if we are to slow the filling up of our oceans and bodies with plastic waste. These practices, and indeed the pandemic itself, are inextricably linked to climate change, McCabe and Filippelli say, and like the systemic issues that drive climate change, we need to come to terms with the systemic issues that create obstacles to achieving more sustainability. Perhaps the global disruption of the pandemic will help us leapfrog to a new normal, they say. By spending time in a simpler mode, often with family, cooking meals at home, walking the neighborhood streets, growing food for the first time, and dearly missing the connections with our fellow humans, perhaps we are arming ourselves with a new, more sustainable set of values. We can, and should, not just build back, but build back better.