Septic Systems In the U.S Need Major Upgrades

(3BL Media/Justmeans) - While city folks have public sewers to treat waste, country folks have septic tanks. Anyone who lives in the country knows all about the trials and tribulations of having a septic system, those small tanks underground that treat sewage.

About one-fifth of American households have septic systems. And in some rural communities, schools, businesses, and churches also use septic systems. The Central California farming community of Easton, where I come from, is one of them. Failing septic systems are causing health and environmental problems across the country, as a five-part report by Circle of Blue reveals. 

Central California is not the only region in the golden state where septic systems exist. Stanford University researchers studied a large septic system at Stinson Beach, located about 20 miles north of San Francisco. Wastewater drains from toilets and sinks in septic systems into underground tanks, then travels through pipes into leach fields. Microbes in the dirt of the leach fields break down waste, including nitrogen, and although most microbes didn’t make it out of the leach field, researchers found that a plume of nitrogen-enriched groundwater flowed toward the ocean. Excess nitrogen can cause algae that chokes out oxygen in coastal waters. The research team has worked with the Stinson Beach County Water District to help fix the problem.

Problems with septic systems exist all over the country. Researchers from U.S. Geological Survey found hormones and pharmaceutical compounds in groundwater close by septic systems on Fire Island, New York and in New England. Toilet waste leaching out of a septic system at a restaurant in Wisconsin, the Long Den, poisoned the limestone aquifer that supplied the restaurant’s water. As a result, 211 people who ate at the restaurant and 18 staff members developed norovirus, which causes diarrhea and vomiting. Six people were hospitalized. 

The septic system for the Long Den met state codes. The problem was caused by a cracked pipe. The restaurant had to buy a $60,000 chlorination system to purify its drinking water. A scientific investigation of the problem at the Long Den found that it demonstrated that “in highly vulnerable hydrogeological settings, compliance with regulations may not provide adequate protection from fecal pathogens.” In other words, there are problems with septic systems that current codes just aren’t meeting. 

Septic systems in the U.S. need an upgrade. The Circle of Blue report lists several ways that can happen:

  • Conducting surveys of where septic systems are located so a map can be created.
  • Providing adequate maintenance and upkeep, as both are the main cause of septic system failure. 
  • New technologies to remove nitrogen pollution. 

There are significant environmental problems in the U.S. caused by septic systems. One of those problems is degraded waterways. About 28,821 miles of streams have been designed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as “threatened or impaired” due to sewage waste from septic systems. That is unacceptable. It is equally unacceptable that in the richest nation in the world we are dealing with inadequate septic systems. 

Photo: U.S Septic Systems