Regulation of sanitary waste began with a focus on disease-causing pathogens (germs). When medical science was able to demonstrate the connection between disease and contaminated drinking water, regulatory activity focused on protecting drinking water from germs. Thousand of people died from cholera between 1830 and 1880 before the link to contaminated drinking water was discovered. Even so, the cholera epidemic of 1939 in Lexington, Kentucky, killed 1500 people in 10 days. To this day there are still occasional outbreaks of hepatitis, e-coli and dysentery from contaminated water around the country.
During the 1800's the United States changed from a population that drew its water directly out of lakes, rivers, springs and wells to an urban populations with water piped in from water treatment plants. This made protection of water sources and regulation of water treatment even more important: if the central plant delivered bad water an entire city could get sick or die. Health departments at state, county and municipal level created ever more detailed regulations to protect the public from bad drinking water. Both water treatment and wastewater discharge became more regulated.
During the mid 1900's a second focus emerged: toxins in the water supply. The most visible of these were acid rain and mercury, but many more toxic chemicals and trace metals were found in our lakes, rivers, streams and underground water supplies. Extensive efforts were made to determine the water quality in each and every supply source. Research was also done to determine how toxic various of these pollutants could be, what levels were dangerous and what harm they could cause humans.
Next came the realization that nutrients are contaminated the water supply. The problem about nutrients in water is that they promote growth of living organisms which in turn trigger an ecological chain of events that ruins the water and can create toxic condition in rivers, wells, aquifers and lakes.
Fertilizers are a large source of these nutrients but not the only source. There are also nutrients from pig and poultry farms getting into the water supply. This, for example, is blamed for much of the pollution in the Cheasapeake Bay. Further, nutrients are found in all human sanitary waste. Our bodies in the process of digestion create and eliminate nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium as byproducts.
Almost half of all the homes in our nation are on septic systems. Septic systems do not typically eliminate nitrogen, phosphate or potassium. It was always assumed that a septic system properly installed in ground that percolates would put these nutrients into the ground far enough above the groundwater for them to become part of the soil without getting into the groundwater. Now that assumption is being questioned.
Nutrients introduce into the discussion a whole new dimension, very different from the concerns about disease and toxins. Germs can be killed and also die quickly in the ground. Metal contaminants can be filetered out and chemical discharges can be banned. But nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium are not living organisms to be killed and they can not easily be filtered. What to do about nutrients is a serious issue for both the septic industry and the wastewater treatment plants.
Enter now a fourth focus: endocrine damaging chemicals or ED's as described in the June 4, 2007 issue of Newsweek. We can expect a great deal more information about how the accumulation of trace amounts of chemicals from shampoos, cosmetics, shaving lotions, skin creams, dishwashing liquids, pesticides, flame retardants, plastics, medicines and other home-use products in the water supply combine to cause genetic damage.
It has been a long and sorrowful journey away from the good old days of plentiful safe water and no worries about what happened with our human waste. We will always have plentiful water and we will find ways to make it safe again. But it will not be cheap.