Arguments of the Week → Society → Nature
May 29, 202212:11
Policy failure and lack of enforcement have left the world’s waterways and farmland vulnerable to “perpetual chemicals.”
Instead of properly investing in new wastewater treatment plants, British water companies – since they were privatized in 1989 – have handed over 72 72 billion in dividends to their shareholders, writes The Guardian.
England’s sewer system is hopelessly outdated and small and is generally completely bypassed as companies allow raw human feces to be dumped directly into rivers without treatment. Some of them have already turned into foul-smelling, almost lifeless sewers.
We take this from years of policy failure and the almost collapse of surveillance and enforcement by successive governments. Raw wastewater not only loads our rivers with excess nutrients, but is also an important source of microplastics that now contaminate them. Contains a wide range of other toxins, including PFAS: “timeless chemicals. This may explain the recent apparent decline in otter populations: having recently begun to recover from organochlorine pesticides used in the 20th century, they are now suffering from new pollutants and again the population is shrinking.
We are often told that the microplastics that enter the sewer system, flush from the street, into the synthetic clothes we wear and many other sources, is a bad problem that is almost impossible to solve. But modern, well-managed wastewater treatment works remove 99% of these fibers from the wastewater.
But after removing them from the water supply, the treatment companies then release them into nature. In the United Kingdom, 87% of wastewater controlled by wastewater treatment plants is shipped to farms. The microplastics that are so carefully removed from the sewage during the treatment process are spread all over the land in sewage sludge, which the water companies sell to farmers as fertilizer.
Then what about them? Some – perhaps most – rinse the soil and end up in rivers: in other words, whether the sewage is sifted or not, the microplastic it contains ends up in the same place. Others accumulate in the soil.
It’s hard to decide which is worse. Experiments show how microplastics cross soil nutrient tissues, poisoning some of the animals that inhabit them. When broken down into nanoparticles, they can be absorbed by soil fungi and accumulated by plants. At present, we have no idea what the consequences of consuming these contaminated crops may be.
The sewage sludge test has not been updated since 1989, so there are no tests for plastic particles or most other synthetic chemicals. A study commissioned but then kept secret by the government found that the sewage sludge distributed on our farms contains a notable cocktail of dangerous substances, such as PFAS, benzo (a) pyrene (carcinogenic group 1), dioxins, PCBs and furas PAH, all of which are persistent and potentially cumulative.
This practice, as well as the spread of contaminated sewage sludge, must be stopped urgently before large areas of agricultural land become unusable and damage to ecosystems, from land to sea, becomes irreversible.
Only when toxic, cumulative chemicals are prohibited, waste streams are properly separated and controlled will wastewater circulate safely.
We are poisoning the earth right now and we are probably poisoning ourselves. This can prove to be one of the deadliest problems of all.
Subscribe to Arguments of the Week: Yandex News | Yandex Zen | Telegram