Raw Sewage: The Next Environmental Catastrophe?

Outdated sewage infrastructure could pose massive ecological and public health problems.

Aging sewer pipes is only half the problem. (Photo: Creative Commons)
The director of the Public Trust Project, Alison has written for Grist and Politics Daily, among others.

Record rainfall this summer has inundated cities across the country, from Portland to Ponchatoula, causing flooding disasters, traffic pile-ups, and wet, unhappy pets.

A byproduct of all this rain? Overburdened sewer systems that are spewing raw sewage into people’s homes. 

If you live in the Bloomingdale neighborhood of Washington, D.C., or the Peoplestown section of Atlanta, or certain parts of Baton Rogue, Louisiana, you may have noticed an unpleasant smell in your home after this summer’s floods. You may have had the misfortune of watching sewage creeping through your carpet. Perhaps you even identified human feces floating in your basement.   

MORE: Many Rivers to Whiff: Sewage-Sniffing Dogs Clean Milwaukee Waterways

Raw sewage, aside from inducing nausea, poses a serious public health threat. 

Sewage contains the most diverse collection of viruses on Earth, according to a survey published last year by leading virologists. 

Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh found traces of 234 viruses in raw sewage samples collected from three continents, as well as the genetic indicators for thousands of as-yet-undiscovered others.   

Viruses identified in the samples included human papillomavirus (also known as HPV, which can lead to genital warts and cervical cancer), Norovirus (stomach flu), and human adenovirus (respiratory tract and eye infections).  

The researchers also found viruses common to sewer-dwelling animals, like rodents and cockroaches, and a huge number of plant viruses from human and animal feces and agricultural byproducts.

Too much rain compounds the problem, especially for cities and counties with outdated sewage infrastructure that is prone to overflow in stormy weather.   

Approximately 40 million people in the U.S. live with combined sewer systems—pipelines that transport sewage, industrial wastewater, and rainwater together to waste treatment sites, instead of through distinct systems. 

When combined sewer systems are inundated, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, discharge contains not only stormwater, but untreated human and industrial waste, as well as pollutants like oil, grease, and toxic chemicals that are picked up as moving rainwater washes into local waterways, threatening aquatic life and public health and safety. 

Combined sewer systems are remnants of the country’s earlier infrastructure, and are mostly found in the Pacific Northwest, the Great Lakes region, and the Northeast.

In New Jersey alone, 23 million gallons of raw sewage overflow into state waterways each year.

Earlier this year, the New Jersey Senate passed a bill requiring that residents of the state be alerted when raw sewage has spilled into bodies of water near where they live. The bill came on the heels of a New Jersey Star-Ledger report revealing that most New Jersey residents were completely unaware of sewage in the water where they swim, kayak, and fish.

Other places are less enthused about sewage control. New York City dumps 400 million gallons of sewage into Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal each year; when the EPA demanded that the city crack down on sewer overflows earlier this year, the agency was met with serious resistance from city officials, who claimed that they weren’t responsible for industrial pollution in the Canal. 

Sudden downpours and subsequent flooding are the planet’s global warming-induced forecast. Climate researchers say we can expect to see a lot more storms in coming years, as excess heat boosts the odds of unpredictable weather.   

The calculus of everyday wastewater treatment is about to become even more complicated. Officials will need to account for the effects of climate change on outdated infrastructure—and quickly, lest we all become a little too familiar with our collective excrement.  

How worried are you about the next great environmental catastrophe—raw sewage?

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