Rio Grande Sewage Discharge: The Dangers of Sewage in Drinking Water
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Every time we flush our toilets or wash something down the sink, we create sewage. Usually, this waste is whisked away to a facility where it is treated to remove everything from feces and urine to scum and debris. But for some people living in parts of New Mexico, the untreated waste ended up in local surface water due to a recent catastrophic sewage spill.
According to CBS4 Local News, water utility company El Paso Water allegedly dumped more than one billion gallons of raw sewage into the Rio Grande River in Sunland Park between August 2021 and January 2022. The discharge supposedly occurred after two wastewater pipes near Doniphan Drive and Sunland Park Drive corroded and broke during severe weather in west El Paso.
Although the utility said it has started replacing the pipes that caused the illegal diversion and began cleaning up the impacted areas, this unfortunate event highlights why ensuring proper wastewater disposal is crucial, especially in less-developed rural communities.
With that in mind, let us explore how raw sewage in surface water can contaminate local drinking water and why it is vital for utilities to dispose of wastewater safely.
First off, what is raw sewage?
Raw sewage refers to untreated wastewater. Sources of untreated wastewater in small communities include homes, farms, hospitals, and businesses. Some neighborhoods have combined sewer systems that collect wastewater and storm water runoff from streets, lawns, farms, golf courses, and other land areas.
Wastewater from a typical household might include toilet waste, used water from sinks, baths, showers, dishwashers, washing machines, and anything else that can be flushed down the toilet or put down the drain. Sewage outside the home may contain debris from streets, waste oils, pesticides, fertilizers, and human and animal waste.
What makes untreated wastewater so dangerous?
Besides having a gross appearance and unbearable smell, wastewater typically contains harmful chemicals, heavy metals, and microbes known to cause various health problems.
For instance, human and animal waste carries many disease-causing organisms, also known as pathogens. These pathogens can enter wastewater from human waste discharged from homes, businesses, and hospitals and animal waste from farms, meat processing facilities, rats, and other animals found in and around sewage. Similarly, toxic chemicals and heavy metals can leach into surface water from runoff from crop fields, industrial processes, mining, quarrying, and specific items put down the drain.
Much of the wastewater – treated or untreated – eventually reaches our rivers, lakes, streams, reservoirs, oceans, and sometimes groundwater that serves well water systems. While municipal utilities that get water from surface water sources typically treat the water to ensure it is safe for consumption, the opposite is true for private wells.
We often assume that groundwater is pure – and sometimes it is. But well water contaminated by sewage is a common cause of wastewater-related disease outbreaks. This has much to do with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other federal bodies not regulating private wells.
Due to the lack of regulation, well water tends to be more susceptible to contamination since people relying on private wells are usually responsible for ensuring the safety of their drinking water. In most cases, private well users are unaware of the dangers of drinking untreated groundwater. They also may not have adequate, modern systems installed in their homes to protect against potentially dangerous waterborne contaminants.
When raw sewage reaches a drinking water source, the health risks can be plenty. No one wants to go swimming, boating, or fishing in sewage-tainted water, let alone ingest it every time they take a sip.
Drinking sewage-polluted water can cause you to develop various diseases and illnesses or even die. In fact, one hundred years ago, epidemics of these sewage-related diseases helped limit the life expectancy of a U.S. citizen to about 50 years. Estimates vary for how many people sewage still sickens or kills each year, but they are all large.
What Happens If You Drink Sewage-Tainted Water?
You might not be able to see them – at least without a microscope – but there are millions of microbes living and thriving in untreated wastewater, many of which are hazardous to humans. These organisms include bacteria, viruses, parasites, etc. Infants, children, older adults, and people with weakened immune systems are more likely to get sick or even die from these pathogens.
Let us look at how microbes in untreated wastewater can affect our health.
Diarrhea is one of the most common diseases caused by sewage in drinking water. It manifests because of intestinal infection or food poisoning by drinking water contaminated with pathogens living in animal or human waste. The disease occurs primarily due to waterborne bacteria (like E. coli), viruses, and protozoans. The condition usually results in the passage of loose, watery stools that can cause dehydration (loss of electrolytes) and death in young children and infants.
Typhoid is a life-threatening bacterial infection distinguished by acute intestinal ulceration and infection. The bacteria responsible for this dreadful infection is called Salmonella Typhi, the same type of bacteria found in some eggs and chicken. The condition is more commonly known as food poisoning or salmonella poisoning. It usually spreads when people consume contaminated water or food washed with dirty water. A person suffering from typhoid can transfer harmful bacteria to their bloodstream and intestinal tract. Some common symptoms of typhoid include persistent fevers (as high as 103° to 104° F, or 39° to 40° C), weakness, headache, loss of appetite, stomach pains, rashes or red spots, muscle aches, and sweating. Typhoid affects approximately twelve million people across the world every year.
Hepatitis A is a highly infectious disease that primarily affects the liver. You can contract the disease by drinking water that contains the hepatitis A virus (HAV) or by coming in close contact with someone who has the infection. Washing and eating foods prepared with sewage-contaminated water can also expose you to the disease. People living in poor sanitation and hygiene management areas are more at risk of being exposed to the virus. Some symptoms of Hepatitis A include abdominal pain, depression, nausea, fatigue, weight loss, jaundice, fever, loss of appetite, clay-colored bowel movements, and others. The infection usually subsides in a few weeks but can become severe and last several months.
Cholera is an infection that primarily affects the small intestine. The bacterium responsible for this disease is known as the Vibrio Cholerae. The virus gets transmitted through the ingestion of water that contains traces of feces. When the untreated water goes through the sewage in waterways, it can affect the domestic water supply. People affected by Cholera may experience symptoms, including dehydration, nausea, vomiting (lasting up to one hour in severe cases), profuse diarrhea, abdominal cramps, and headaches. If not treated correctly or on time, Cholera can cause death in rare cases.
People usually get salmonellosis after ingesting food or drinking water contaminated with feces. When domestic or wild animals leave their feces in or near water surfaces such as rivers, lakes, ponds, streams, etc., the salmonella virus can enter private wells, water tanks, or other water supplies, especially after a flood or improper sewage disposal in surface water. The harmful waste can then combine with the water from various media, including polluted stormwater runoff, agricultural runoff, and others. The disease can also come from undercooked meat, egg products, fruits and vegetables, and other contaminated water and food. The most common symptoms of salmonellosis include vomiting, fever, diarrhea, abdominal cramps, dehydration (common in infants), and others. Sometimes individuals can be infected without showing any signs.
Cryptosporidiosis, aka ‘Crypto,’ is an infection that targets the intestines. The microscopic parasite Cryptosporidium causes the disease. This organism lives in the bowel and is present in the feces of infected humans and domesticated animals like cattle, sheep, cats, and dogs. The infection usually spreads by ingesting contaminated food or water or swimming and immersing in contaminated water. People infected with crypto typically experience diarrhea, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, fever, headache, loss of appetite, etc. Some people infected with the virus may not develop any symptoms.
Polio (Infantile Paralysis)
Polio is a highly lethal viral infection caused by the polio virus. The infection spreads through water contaminated with feces from an infected person. When the virus enters the bloodstream, it targets and destroys the nervous system, which results in extreme weakness. In most cases, it causes paralysis. People without a polio vaccination are at a higher risk of being infected by the virus. The symptoms include fever, seizures, headaches, and paralysis at a later stage.
Dysentery is a waterborne disease characterized by severe diarrhea and blood or mucus in the stool. It primarily affects the intestines and spreads through poor hygiene. It can also be caused by bacteria, viruses, or parasites in contaminated food and drinking water and by people encountering fecal matter. People with dysentery usually experience diarrhea, fever, nausea, dehydration, stomach cramps, and pain.
Other Wastewater-Related Health Concerns
Pathogens are not the only contaminants in raw sewage that can threaten our health. Untreated wastewater may also contain organic compounds, heavy metals, and toxic chemicals, most of which can severely contaminate our drinking water and make us sick.
For example, inadequate wastewater treatment, outdated treatment processes, improper disposal of raw sewage, and other factors can release excessive amounts of nitrogen into water sources. Too much nitrate in water can be dangerous for humans, causing methemoglobinemia or blue baby syndrome. This condition prevents the normal uptake of oxygen in the blood of young babies. Nitrogen is also suspected of causing miscarriages and certain respiratory illnesses in humans.
Metals such as lead, copper, cadmium, zinc, and nickel can also be found in wastewater. Our bodies need trace amounts of some of these metals, but they can be harmful in larger doses. Acute poisoning from heavy metals in water is rare in the U.S., but it’s unknown whether ingesting small quantities over an extended period has any accumulative effects.
Other potentially toxic substances can enter wastewater from various sources, such as local businesses, industries, or stormwater runoff. These substances include pesticides and chemicals like chlorinated hydrocarbons, phenol, PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), and benzene.
An analysis of seven studies found that pesticide exposure could be linked to an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Another review discovered that pesticide exposure may lead to a higher risk of Parkinson’s disease and could alter specific genes involved in its development. PCBs and benzene are highly carcinogenic chemical compounds, meaning they can increase the risk of cancer in humans.
What to Do if You Suspect Raw Sewage in Your Drinking Water
- Avoid drinking the water immediately.
Since the water may contain potentially harmful microbes, we suggest you avoid using it for drinking, brushing teeth, preparing food, mixing baby formula, making ice, washing produce, making beverages, and other uses that require ingesting the water. Also, make sure to throw out all existing ice cubes. In the meantime, you and your pets can drink boiled or bottled water – but only for the short term. Doing laundry is still acceptable, and adults may continue to shower with the water once they do not consume it.
- Contact your local health department.
If you suspect microbes or other sewage-linked contaminants in your drinking water or have any water and wastewater-related health questions, do not hesitate to contact your local or state health department. Health department officials can also help residents identify suitable wastewater treatment options and water testing facilities for their area and inform them of recent or current sewage contamination issues.
- Test your drinking water.
Some pathogens in drinking water usually cannot be seen, tasted, or smelled. Besides, many of the health-related symptoms are not immediate. Therefore, you cannot always be sure if your water is contaminated by looking at it, smelling it, or tasting it. This is where laboratory testing comes in.
A certified laboratory can thoroughly evaluate your drinking water, detecting bacteria, viruses, and parasites. For instance, ETR Laboratories is an accredited laboratory that offers a selection of tap and well water testing kits you can use to check for various contaminants in water.
The basic water test kit includes tests for a broad range of waterborne pollutants, including bacteria, metals and minerals, anions, and radioactive elements. It also evaluates specific water attributes, such as pH and alkalinity. Coliform bacteria could indicate the presence of other disease-causing organisms, so the laboratory will likely test for E. coli if coliform is present.
The testing kit also includes specific instructions for collecting and mailing the water sample back to the laboratory. After completing the test, the laboratory will fax or email you an in-depth technical report on your results and send a copy by mail for your records. The report includes recommendations on how to improve your water’s quality and how to remove any unwanted substances. The laboratory test results are usually reported in one to three business days.
How to Remove Bacteria, Chemical Contaminants, and Heavy Metals from Drinking Water
Removing sewage-related contaminants from drinking water not only can make your water taste and smell better but also protects against harmful pollutants that could cause disease and illness when ingested. But how do you achieve this? Sometimes it is as simple as installing a reliable water filtration and purification system in your home.
Home water treatment systems use different technologies to destroy bacteria, viruses, parasites, and other contaminants in sewage-polluted drinking water, ensuring every faucet in your household is clean, refreshing, and healthy. These technologies can include ultraviolet (UV), reverse osmosis filtration, ozonation, or a combination of two or more, depending on the system.
A whole-house water filter system like the Springwell CF1 can eliminate harmful water contaminants, including chlorine, chloramine, PFOA, PFOS, pesticides, herbicides, haloacetic acids, etc. Add a UV water purification system to the mix, and bacteria will vanish forever from your water supply.
The Springwell UV Water Purification System removes 99% of bacteria, viruses, and parasites, so you can fill up at any tap without the risk of ingesting E. coli, cryptosporidium, and giardia lamblia through your drinking water.
If you’re interested in learning more about the best water filtration system to remove microbes from water, our Customer Support and Sales Teams are always available to help.
What About Chlorination, Boiling, or Bottled Water?
Chlorine is highly effective against most pathogens in various water sources; there is no doubt about that. However, the chemical’s ability to destroy germs depends on its concentration and contact time with the microorganisms.
Under the right circumstances, chlorine can kill most waterborne germs. However, microbes such as cryptosporidium are resistant to normal chlorination processes. Because of this, some water systems may require other treatment processes to protect against these and other chlorine-resistant pathogens.
Boiling is also remarkably effective against waterborne pathogens because most microorganisms cannot survive in hot temperatures. Boiling kills disease-causing organisms in water, including viruses, bacteria, and parasites. However, it can be very time-consuming, especially for an average family that consumes the recommended amount of water daily.
For this reason, you might want to turn off the heat before the water reaches the recommended boiling point to keep up with the demand. And the last thing you want is for you and your family to drink partially boiled water with most of the pathogens still present and active. Beyond that, boiling can leave behind bacteria residue, which carries many hidden dangers.
Bottled water is considerably more expensive than boiling or using chlorine or a water purification system. Moreover, single-use plastic bottles are a menace to the environment. There is also the risk of microplastics in drinking water, partly from plastic bottles. If you want to keep more money in your pockets while protecting the environment and your health, buying bottled water is not worth it.
Proper treatment and disposal of wastewater are crucial to community health and development. Untreated sewage in surface water and groundwater typically contains a wide range of microbes that can spread disease and illness and contaminate drinking water sources.
While many Americans deem many of these wastewater-related problems as threats exclusive to less-developed countries, the recent Rio Grande Sewage Discharge situation shows that the problem is closer to home than we think.
Sure, water utilities and authorities can do more to protect water sources from sewage contamination. However, we must take proactive steps to protect our health by keeping contaminants out of our drinking water and preventing illness.
Investing in a reliable water filtration system is a wise first step to ensuring our families and pets have clean, safe drinking water 24/7.