Recycled Water: What's in it for you
|Common Pollutants - In Water|
ASEHA does not support the introduction of recycled sewage into Queensland aquifers. There are in excess of 100,000 man made chemicals in our environment and our lives and while some chemicals are known to cause adverse health impacts e.g. water borne diseases, cancer, endocrine disruption and others, there are data gaps in scientific knowledge about the type and quantities of chemicals in treated sewage and the adverse health impacts that can arise from public exposure to them. World’s best practice technology cannot remove all chemicals and pathogens. People with existing environmental sensitivities should not be exposed to these risks.
The notion that sewage could affect human health was not understood until the cholera outbreak in London in the 19th century. However, it was not until the1900s that adequate separation of water from sewage was achieved in developed countries which resulted in a substantial reduction in cases of waterborne disease.
Currently, due to population pressure, climate change and drought, ways are being sought to reduce water consumption and find other sustainable ways of utilising all available water. Efforts thus far have been based on water efficiency by reducing per-capita use through water restrictions and water efficient appliances but longer term strategies are needed. At present, potable water supplied is for all uses and some 50% goes to gardens, toilets and laundry – where water of lesser quality would be adequate.
The use of rainwater, stormwater, grey water and sewage has the potential to expose the population to chemical contaminants and pathogens unless the water can be appropriately treated and managed.
WHAT IS IN RECYCLED SEWAGE?
Heavy Metals and Industrial Contaminants, agricultural chemicals e.g.
Grease and oil
Pesticides e.g. organophosphates, herbicides, fungicides
Plasticisers e.g. bisphenol A
(Roberts, G. 2008)
Water borne pathogens e.g.
Superbugs such as Staphylococcus aureus
Bugs that can cause encephalitis
Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products (PPCPs) e.g.
Pharmaceutical drugs e.g. prescriptions and over-the-counter medications and therapeutic substances e.g. chemotherapeutic agents, radioactive residues, antibiotics, hormones, steroids.
Ingredients of personal care products such as fragrances, cosmetics, sun-screens, toiletries containing phthalates, synthetic musk compounds, triclosan - many of which are endocrine disruptors or carcinogens.
Nutraceuticals (e.g., vitamins)
Persistent Organic Pollutants e.g
Organochlorine pesticides e.g. DDT, Dieldrin
Fluorinated chemicals such as Perfluoroalkyl compounds that breakdown to PFOS, PFOA which do not degrade in the environment e.g. Teflon
Flame retardants such as Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE’s)
Organic compounds in drinking water
Researchers from the US Geological Survey collected water samples over a twelve month period (2002 – 2004) from stream water prior to treatment at a water storage facility. The samples were analysed for 258 compounds, most of which are unregulated in drinking water. The samples analysed included pesticides and selected pesticide degradates (break down products), gasoline hydrocarbons, personal care and domestic use compounds and solvents. The analytical methods had low detection levels approximately 100 – 1,000 times lower that State and Federal standards and guidelines for protecting water quality. The detections were not designed to indicate human health concerns but to assist with the identification of emerging issues and track changes in occurrence and concentrations over time.
Compounds commonly occurring were chloroform, atrazine, simazine, metolachlor, deethylatrazine and hexahydrohexamethylcyclopentabenzopyran (HHCB). These were detected in more than half of the samples. Chloroform was the most commonly detected compound. Findings for chloroform along with the fragrances HHCB and acetyl hexamethyltetrahydronaphthalene (AHTN) indicate an association between occurrence and the presence of large upstream wastewater discharges in watersheds. The herbicides atrazine, simazine and metolachlor were also among the most commonly detected compounds along with their degradates at similar concentrations. Samples contained mixtures of two or more compounds and the total number of compounds and concentrations generally increased with urban and agricultural land use in a watershed.
In a second sampling phase (2004-5) both water prior to and after treatment were sampled. Water treatment processes differed from system to system. Some treatment systems were conventional and typically included steps of coagulation, flocculation, sedimentation, filtration and disinfection. One water system used slow sand filtration and disinfection; a second system used ozone as a preliminary treatment step to conventional treatment while a third system was a direct filtration treatment plant that used many of the steps used in conventional treatment. Most of these treatments are not designed to specifically remove the compounds monitored in the study.
Around two thirds of the compounds sampled and detected commonly in stream water were detected at similar frequencies in treated water in spite of differences in treatment systems. Some seasonal changes e.g. higher concentrations of pesticides were reflected in the associated treated water.
Some compounds detected in water prior to treatment were either removed or transformed during treatment and were not detected in treated water, these included aromatic hydrocarbons with one or more methyl groups, 3,4-dichloroaniline (diuron degradates), the organophosphate insecticides diazinon, malathion and fipronil. Decreases in concentration or nondetection of these compounds in treated water were due to degradation or transformation as a result of chlorine disinfection.
With the exception of atrazine at one site, the annual mean concentration of all compounds detected in finished water was less than those established as human-health benchmarks. (Kingsbury, JA et al. 2008).
Nanomaterials. Nanomaterials are found in drinking water. They are minute particles that measure less than 100 nanometres or one hundred thousandth of one metre and are components of products such as sunscreens, cosmetics, medications, fabrics, clothes, paints, varnishes, fuel catalysts, automotive & aerospace components, bottle coatings, agricultural chemicals, even some foods. They are dangerous because:
They are able to cross blood barriers and gain access organs, tissues and cells that larger particles cannot. Inhaled nanoparticles can cross the blood-brain barrier and the blood lung barrier
Chemical reactivity changes at nano scale
Australia has no standards for protection of the environment and human health from the adverse impacts of nanomaterials.
Australia has no regulatory framework to manage the risks and hazards posed to human health and the environment through the widespread use and application of nanomaterials.
Toxicology on nanotechnology is currently inadequate.
Concern has been expressed over the potential dangers posed by the rapidly expanding number of products containing nanomaterials. The warning comes from the Council of Canadian Academies in one of the most authoritative reports to date about the risks of engineered nanomaterials, which are added to products ranging from sunscreens to diesel fuels. The Council cautions that the tiny substances might be able to penetrate cells and interfere with biological processes. The Council was asked by Health Canada and several other federal agencies to study the state of knowledge about nanomaterials and the regulatory changes needed to oversee their use, they concluded that "there is inadequate data to inform quantitative risk assessments on current and emerging nanomaterials." According to the report their small size, may allow them "to usurp traditional biological protective mechanisms" and, as a result, possibly have "enhanced toxicological effects" (Council of Canadian Academies. 2008).
According to a product inventory by the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN), consumer products that incorporate nanotechnology are being released at the rate of three or four per week. The nanotechnology inventory maintained by PEN was initiated in 2006 with 212 products. To date 609 products have been recorded by the inventory and 60% of these are health and fitness items including cosmetics and sunscreens. The figures are also thought to be only the tip of the iceberg with the real number of goods and products incorporating nanotechnology much higher. The US government has a $1.4 billion nanotechnology budget and PEN claim a dangerously low percentage of this is spent of risk research. A PEN investigation concluded that US funding on nanotechnology risk research is lack and is a little over half the amount spent in Europe in 2006.
Public confidence could impact on the future of nanotechnology. If government and industry do not work to build public confidence, consumers may reach for the ‘no-nano’ label and investors will put their money elsewhere. Perceptions - real and perceived - can have large economic consequences (Bird, K. 2008)
Toxicology experiments on Nanomaterials often arrive at similar conclusions. Placing nanoparticles or other kinds of nanosized structures on a petri dish and then exposing human skin cells, daphnids, microbes or other organisms to the new materials usually has a similar effect. Samples from a mouse brain exposed to commercially available nanoparticles showed swollen mitochondria next to the nanoparticle aggregates.
Peer reviewed literature contains thousands of articles documenting adverse impacts of tests that were conducted in an effort to determine the health and safety of nanomaterials, and yet, the scientific community has yet to determine which nanomaterials are hazardous to human health and the environment because of lack of methodology and other basics. Researchers in the field of ecotoxicology and environmental risk assessment of nanomaterials claim the science is still in its infancy (EST Online News. Feb 20, 2008)
Pesticides. Mixtures of chemicals are also of concern and while the effects of a single chemical may not be deadly, combinations of chemicals can be more potent. While pesticides are regulated one by one in the environment, they are already mixtures of chemicals and can further mix with other pesticides. Such mixtures are not regulated and monitoring the water quality of rivers and streams has shown that habitats are widely contaminated with pesticide runoff from urban areas and agricultural land. Investigations of mixtures of five common insecticides found that some combinations were much more toxic to salmon than any one chemical acting alone and the enhanced toxicity of pesticide mixtures could be a more important factor in salmon population declines that previously realised. These findings may have implications for human health because pesticides act on the nervous systems of salmon and humans in a similar way. Further mixtures of pesticide residues can be common in the human food supply (EST Online News. 2008).
Water Borne Pathogens
Dr Peter Collignon, a microbiologist from the Australian National University and a leading infectious disease expert, has major concerns about recycled sewage in drinking water. He claimed the technology does not exist to prevent recycled sewage from contaminating the water supply of 2.6 million residents in southeast Queensland and who will become the first Australians to drink their own waste.
The state government plans to release 60 megalitres per day of recycled water into Wivenhoe Dam which is Brisbane’s main water source. Under this plan, recycled water will account for between 10 and 25% of the region’s drinking water supply. Dr Collignon has major concerns about hundreds of viruses that could be present in the water and does not believe the technology exists to ensure this does not happen.
Queensland Premier, Anna Bligh, when asked if she could guarantee the safety of recycled water claimed: ‘The scientific advice to me is that this can be guaranteed to be as safe as anything else that comes out of our taps at the moment’. In electronic media around the same time she claimed that recycled water was 99.999% safe. In making that statement she rejected the expert advice from leading scientists who stated this is not the case.
Dr Peter Collignon rejected claims by the Queensland Government that the water was comparable with recycled water schemes in other countries. He claimed that the Namibian capital of Windhoek, which is located in a desert has the only comparable system, while Singapore had a very different system. In Singapore, waste water was pumped through a pipeline separate from their reticulated system – unlike that in southeast Queensland – and accounted for less than one per cent of Singapore’s dam capacity. He further claimed that ‘ Brisbane has many times the rainfall of Windhoek and there is no need for Brisbane to be adding sewage to drinking water. There is nowhere else in the world where a large population is being forced to accept a situation where 10 or 20 percent of their drinking water is recycled sewage’. Viruses that could contaminate the water supply ranged from bugs that caused gastroenteritis to potentially fatal infections leading to encephalitis and heart disease. ‘Test results for hazardous bacteria such as E.coli would not be available to authorities for at least a day’, he said. "By the time the results come back, the water is already in the reservoir." (Roberts, G. 2008).
Another expert has also claimed that drinking recycled sewage is not safe. Emeritus Professor Patrick Troy from the Australian National University claimed it is not possible to prevent harmful organisms from entering southeast Queensland’s water supply when recycled sewage is added. He said it was scandalous that Queenslanders were not even offered a vote in a referendum on recycled sewage that would constitute 25 percent of their drinking water. The first recycled water was expected to be pumped into Wivenhoe Dam in February and a $9 billion water grid has been established so that water can be shuffled between the Gold Coast, Sunshine Coast and Brisbane.
Professor Troy was concerned about the safety of recycled water which has not been proved in any long-term epidemiological studies he claimed ‘it will not be possible to remove all biologically active waste molecules from the system.’ "The probability is that something like 8 per cent of these impurities will get through, and that is assuming the system is working properly." He went on to say that residents with allergies would be at particular risk of infection and the authorities are playing Russian Roulette with the health of the population. He further claimed the recycled water project was expensive, unnecessary and a waste of public money and was ‘all being driven by a technological obsession that big engineering projects offer the only solutions to water shortages’.
Lawrence Springborg, Leader of the Opposition, said the use of recycled water would be a last resort, while Anna Bligh refused to back away from her support for the project. She claimed that recycling was a necessary part of the solution given the rapidly growing population of southeast Queensland and that it would continue to expand (Roberts G, Murphy P. 2008).
The need for new dams in areas where it rains was obvious many years ago but the then government failed to meet the need – as they have with other infrastructure – roads, electricity, health care… To make matters worse reports of accidental sewage spills have been allegedly covered up. A report in the Australian claims that State government authorities covered up an accident at a water recycling plant at Bundamba near Brisbane in which more than 500,000 litres of industrial and hospital waste water were spilled (Roberts, G. 2009). A further report indicated that treated sewage and industrial effluent have been spilled on four occasions in the past two weeks, including three times in one day at different sites. This is another blow to southeast Queensland’s $2.5 billion recycled water scheme. Faulty valves in pipelines have been blamed and authorities insisted there was no risk to public health or the environment (Roberts, G. 2009 a)
Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products (PPCPs)
PPCPs are bioactive chemicals i.e. substances that can have an enormous impact on human health and the environment. While PPCPs have been around for decades it is only recently that the effect of these on the environment has been recognised and they have become an important area of research. Sources of PPCPs include human activity, residues from pharmaceutical manufacturing, residues from hospitals, illicit drugs, veterinary drug use especially antibiotics and steroids and agricultural manufacturing and use.
The direct contribution of individuals to the volume of chemicals in the environment and the importance of this is largely unrecognised, but illustrates the connection between the actions and activities of humans and the pollution of their environment. PPCPs are added to the environment via excretion i.e. the elimination of waste materials from the body, bathing, the disposal of unwanted medications, household cleaning (e.g. fragranced toilet disinfectants) and personal care products to sewers and garbage. Proper disposal of PPCPs is important to prevent unnecessary pollution of human health and the environment.
While some PPCPs break down easily in the body or degrade quickly others are do not. These are flushed down the toilet via excretion where they become part of sewage and enter the environment. Other factors that impact on the volume of pharmaceuticals depends on the composition of products i.e. excipients that affect absorption and maximise excretion and the ability of the individual to break down drugs and other PPCPs. Because PPCPs do not dissolve easily or evaporate at normal temperatures or pressure they can make their way into soil and the aquatic environment via sewage, treated sewage sludge (biosolids) and irrigation (US EPA. www.epa.gov)
Persistent Organic Pollutants
Scientists from Canada and the US claim that the ‘out of sight, out of mind’ approach we take to chemicals in our waters needs to change because substances we use on a daily basis are now found in our lakes, rivers and ocean where they can impact on aquatic life and humans. Of the 30,000 or so chemicals used commercially in the US and Canada, around 400 resist breaking down in the environment and can accumulate in fish and wildlife. They estimate that only 4% of the 400 chemicals are routinely analysed and around 75% have not been studied at all. These are now known as emerging chemical contaminants or ECCs, they are not all new substances and because of improved detection technologies, the unexpected potential impacts on human health and the environment are now just being found and are likely to be coming back to haunt us in unanticipated ways.
Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons. Following the Exxon Valdez oil spill, researchers found that polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) were left in Pacific waters causing heart defects in herring and pink salmon embryos. PAHs from various sources e.g. oil spills and urban runoff, remain a threat to fish along the coastline. The scientists suspect that these chemicals can cause fish embryo hearts to beat slower, resulting in heart deformities and a build-up of fluid around their hearts. Over a period of six years, they tested the effects of PAHs on zebrafish which have been determined to have systems comparable to humans. The zebrafish embryo’s hearts were severely malformed after absorbing PAHs via the skin. The researchers claim what isn’t good for them, isn’t good for humans and given the amount of PAH emissions that come out of car tailpipes daily, especially in dense, urban areas, we are basically breathing an aerosolized oil spill. PAHs should be considered as “prime suspects for human vascular impacts related to air pollution”.
Perfluorchemicals. These are fluorinated chemicals that are used as stain repellents, nonstick coatings on saucepans and food packing and are derived from compounds known as perfluorinated compounds, or PFCs. They are tough substances that resist spills and grease. PFCs can easily contaminate bodies of water and that same characteristic makes them resistant to spills and grease also makes them resistant to breaking down in the environment and accumulating up the food chain. Some researchers monitored PFCs in loggerhead sea turtles along the US East Coast to study the effects on them.
The turtles accumulate PFCs in their tissues because they eat filter feeders such as mussels that remove contaminants from water. Turtles with high concentrations of PFCs showed signs of liver damage and their immune systems were compromised which indicates that chronic exposures to contaminants can impair their defences against disease or their ability to reproduce. Because reptiles and humans have similar immune systems, we may also be at risk for the same health problems as the loggerheads from exposure to PFCs.
Gender bending chemicals. Chemicals are finding their way into aquatic ecosystems partly because wastewater treatment plants do not filter them out completely. This includes estrogen excreted by women in their urine after taking birth control medications.
Research into the effect of estrogen on aquatic life in a lake in northwestern Ontario showed that male fish started producing eggs or egg proteins and female fish produced up to 114 times more estrogen than normal. One species stopped reproducing until more than 99% of its entire population in the lake was lost. This has implications throughout the food chain, ultimately affecting top predators and the entire lake ecosystem. In the next two years there were depletions in longer lived species including trout.
The good news was that once the estrogen was removed from the system, and given enough time, some species began to repopulate the lake. This suggests that if treatment plants were more effective at removing such chemicals from municipal wastewaters BEFORE they enter the environment, affected ecosystems could recover.
Dilution not the solution. While recycled sewage may be in small concentrations and is diluted further when released into dams or the ocean, this is not an acceptable solution to water pollution. Studies in southern California showed that more than a billion gallons of treated wastewater were discharged into coastal waters on a daily basis and some of the contaminants were detected in sediments and water, even though the effluent is immediately diluted one hundredfold on discharge.
The ineffectiveness of water treatment plants to completely remove chemicals from wastewater could have implications for ground and surface water. Treated effluent is sometimes discharged into rivers, used to replenish groundwater (dams) or irrigate landscapes and if these chemicals are not filtered out via natural processes they can end up in our drinking water. It is ironic that we use drugs and products to benefit our health and wellbeing and that these in turn can harm human health and the environment. Fortunately, studies are becoming available that allow us to see the wider picture and to make the connection between what we put in or on our bodies, or use in our homes that can affect our whole world. Such studies will also improve our understanding of the impacts of ECCs and lead to improved management decisions for ecosystems that are already battling a multitude of stresses (EST Online News. 2008).
Bird, K. 2008. Number of nanotech consumer goods soar. Food navigator – Europe. 24 April, 2008.
Council of Canadian Academies. 2008. Micro materials could pose major health risks.
EST Online News Feb. 16, 2008. Science News. New Findings on emerging contaminants. Environmental Science and Technology, American Chemical Society.
EST Online News. Feb. 20, 2008. Risks of nanotechnology remain uncertain. Environmental Science and Technology, American Chemical Society
Kingsbury, J.A., Delzer, G.C., and Hopple, J.A., 2008, Anthropogenic organic compounds in source water of nine community water systems that withdraw from streams, 2002–05: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2008–5208, 66 p.
Roberts, G. 2008. Cyanide to be recycled for drinking water in Queensland. The Australian Nov.11, 2008.
Roberts G and Murphy P. 2008. Recycled sewage ‘will have bugs’, Queensland government warned. The Australian. October 29, 2008
Roberts, G,. 2009. Spill at waste water plant covered up. The Australian. January 16, 2009.
Roberts, G. 2009 a. Spilt sewage in Queensland fuels fears on recycled water. The Australian. January 30, 2009.
United States. Environment Protection Agency. Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products www.epa.gov
Written By Dorothy Bowes 2009
Last Updated (Friday, 20 November 2009 01:52)