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Human waste (some times referred to as raw sewage) is becoming an increasing problem for people, animals, and the environment. Untreated human waste, as it runs off into streams, rivers, lakes, and oceans, is causing significant problems for humans and marine life. People are negatively affected by human waste because it contributes to illness and disease. Raw sewage is a significant factor in the sickening of over one million people annually. The bacteria, viruses, and parasites common in human waste can lead to diseases such as hepatitis (a liver disease), meningitis (an inflammation of the membranes that cover the brain and spinal cord), and cholera (an acute intestinal infection). It is estimated that each year approximately 900 people die from contamination of this kind. Exposure to human waste can be caused by drinking contaminated water; swimming in oceans, lakes, and streams that have raw sewage in them; and eating food that has been in contact with human waste.
Not only is the toll on humans significant, but human waste contamination in oceans is also causing problems for marine life. When untreated human waste makes its way into the oceans, it can poison shellfish. It is also a contributor to “dead zones” in coastal waters where oxygen levels are too low to sustain life. The nitrogen found in human waste (which is also found in fertilizers and emissions from vehicles and factories) contributes to this problem. Nitrogen, emitted into the ocean, fertilizes microscopic plant life and causes it to flourish. When the plankton die, they fall to the ocean floor and are digested by microorganisms. This process removes oxygen from the water and creates the dead zones.
Human waste seeps into the water primarily through septic tanks and antiquated sewage systems in municipalities. Many homes in the United States have septic systems in which wastewater is piped into the septic tank from the home and the excess flows out into the ground, where it is absorbed. It is estimated that one person puts out seven pounds of nitrogen a year into a septic tank, and about half of this nitrogen reaches the water table. Antiquated sewage systems are very costly to modernize and expand. Many cities have sewage pipes that were laid in the 1800s, and most lack the funding necessary for improvements. It is estimated that human waste seeps into streams and lakes 40,000 times every year as a result of this.
There are ways to minimize the impact of human waste on the environment. When developing new areas, cities must continue to build sewage systems that can accommodate a surge in population. Better maintenance of current sewage systems (such as having crews check lines to keep tree roots and grease clogs out of the system) helps. In addition, new regulations provide incentives to control human waste contamination in water.
- Tom Vanden Brook, “Sewage Pouring into Lakes, Streams,” USA Today (August 20, 2002);
- Centers for Disease Control, www.cdc.gov;
- Cheryl Lyn Dybas, “Dead Zones Spreading in World Oceans,” Bio Science (v.5517, 2005);
- Elizabeth Weise, “As Suburbs Grow, So Do Environmental Fears,” USA Today (December 28, 2005).