Academic Programs Environmental Studies Macalester College

Home          Links            Sanitary Sewer Overflow Photos             Bibliography    

Risks and Problems associated with Wastewater Pollution

Overview of Great Lakes Wastewater Management
The Great Lakes Watershed
History of U.S. Wastewater Management
Risks and Problems
Milwaukee, WI
Chicago, IL
Detroit, MI
Citizen Groups
Rehabilitation and Action Plan

            Aging sewer systems are failing across the country. According to David Whitman, “each year in the United States, sewers back up in basements an estimated 400,000 times, and municipal sanitary sewers overflow on 40,000 occasions, dumping potentially deadly pathogens into the nation’s streets, waterways, and beach areas” (Whitman). These numbers do not include combined sewer overflows, which tend to occur much more frequently than sanitary sewer overflows. The EPA projects that combined sewer overflows discharge 1.2 trillion gallons of sewage and storm water runoff each year (Whitman).

            When the Clean Water Act was passed in 1972, cities were forced to expand their wastewater treatment facilities to reduce discharge of sewage. However, “in recent decades, federal funding for sewer systems has dwindled, even as the demand for wastewater treatment has grown” (Whitman). This is a serious concern for the health of humans as well as the overall biotic community.

           Humans can get extremely sick from sewage discharges: “Raw sewage contains bacteria like E. coli, viruses, helminthes (intestinal worms) and parasites. Most of those stricken suffer stomach cramps and diarrhea, but untreated sewage also spreads life-threatening ailments” (Whitman). According to the EPA, the following “life-threatening ailments” are associated with untreated sewage: “cholera, dysentery, infections hepatitis, and severe gastroenteritis” (EPA). Oddly enough, the U.S. EPA says nothing about endocrine disrupting chemicals prevalent in untreated wastewater. People can be exposed to these ailments through sewage in drinking water sources, shellfish harvested from areas contaminated by sewage, and direct contact. Direct contact occurs when sewage backs up into peoples’ basements, flows onto lawns and streets, or when people use contaminated waters for recreation (EPA). According to the EPA, “at least one study has estimated a direct relationship between gastrointestinal illness contracted while swimming and bacteria levels in the water” (EPA).

            In April of 1993, 403,000 residents of Milwaukee were sickened with cryptosporidiosis, a flu-like illness caused by a protozoan called cryptosporidium (WI-DNR). Many died from this illness – estimates range up to 100 people (WI-DNR). This outbreak is discussed in greater detail in the Milwaukee case study. One must note that this is not an isolated incident. The EPA has reported that “more than a million Americans become ill each year just from sanitary-sewer overflows” (Whitman). A similar outbreak occurred in Austin, Texas in 1998, when 1,400 residents became ill with gastroenteritis after 167,000 gallons of untreated sewage spilled into Bushy Creek (Whitman).

            Despite the severe health risks related to sewage mismanagement, local officials, as well as voters, have neglected the problem of sewerage for decades (Whitman). The public is all too often kept in the dark when it comes to sewer overflows and other environmental hazards related to sewerage (EIP). Today, with the help of local, citizen-based environmental groups, the EPA, and statewide Departments of Natural Resources, the sewerage crisis is beginning to be recognized as one of the major issues facing U.S. cities today, though most cities are still facing devastating consequences from inadequate systems. Despite progress at the local and grassroots level, federal threats to funding for CSO cleanup and sewerage updates are being pushed through by the Bush administration today. (EIP).  

CSO Warning

CSO warning

Macalester College · 1600 Grand Avenue, St. Paul, MN 55105  USA · 651-696-6000
Comments and questions to