Fate of the pathogen indicators phage phiX174 and Ascaris suum eggs during the production of struvite fertilizer from source-separated urine
Human urine has the potential to be a sustainable, locally and continuously available source of nutrients for agriculture. Phosphate can be efficiently recovered from human urine in the form of the mineral struvite (MgNH4PO4•6H2O). However, struvite formation may be coupled with the precipitation of other constituents present in urine including pathogens, pharmaceuticals, and heavy metals. To determine if struvite fertilizer presents a microbiological health risk to producers and end users, we characterized the fate of a human virus surrogate (phage ΦX174) and the eggs of the helminth Ascaris suum during a low-cost struvite recovery process. While the concentration of phages was similar in both the struvite and the urine, Ascaris eggs accumulated within the solid during the precipitation and filtration process. Subsequent air-drying of the struvite filter cake partially inactivated both microorganisms; however, viable Ascaris eggs and infective phages were still detected after several days of drying. The infectivity of both viruses and eggs was affected by the specific struvite drying conditions: higher inactivation generally occurred with increased air temperature and decreased relative humidity. On a log-log scale, phage inactivation increased linearly with decreasing moisture content of the struvite, while Ascaris inactivation occurred only after achieving a minimum moisture threshold. Sunlight exposure did not directly affect the infectivity of phages or Ascaris eggs in struvite cakes, though the resultant rise in temperature accelerated the drying of the struvite cake, which contributed to inactivation.