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United Nations Environment Programme
Division of Technology, Industry and Economics
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Newsletter and Technical Publications
<International Source Book On Environmentally Sound Technologies
for Wastewater and Stormwater Management>

2.1 Impact of wastewater and stormwater

The impact of organic substances in wastewater is discussed in Section 1, while the impact of pathogens and toxic chemicals in wastewater on human health is discussed in detail in Appendix 2. The consequent loss of economic productivity due to illnesses, medial bills or inability to perform work at full capacity has been estimated to be in the order of billions of dollars per day.

Solids in both wastewater and stormwater form sediments and can eventually clog drains, streams and rivers. Grease particles form scum and are aesthetically undesirable.

The nutrients N and P cause eutrophication of water bodies, with lakes and slow moving waters affected to a greater degree than faster flowing waters. In the former the algae which are fertilised by the nutrients, settle as sediment when they decay. The sediment acts as a store of nutrients and regularly releases the nutrients to the water column, thus the cycle of bloom and decay of the algae is intensified. In the early stages of eutrophication aquatic life is made more abundant, because fish, for example, graze on the algae. With too high a concentration of algae, the decaying algae contribute to BOD and the water is deoxygenated. Thus wastewater, which has been treated to reduce BOD but still high in nutrients, can still have a significant impact on the receiving water. Some algae produce toxins which can be harmful to bird life and irritate skins coming into contact with the water. Eutrophic water adds to the cost of water treatment, when the water is used for drinking purposes.

Other pollutants in wastewater and stormwater are heavy metals and possible toxic and household hazardous substances. Heavy metals include copper, zinc, cadmium, nickel, chromium and lead. The content and concentration are dependent on the pipe materials employed to convey drinking water, household cleaning agents used, and for stormwater the type of materials used for roofing and guttering. In high enough concentrations these heavy metals are toxic to bacteria, plants and animals, and to people. Toxic materials may also be disposed with household wastewater. These could be medicines, pesticides and herbicides which are no longer used, excess solvents, paints and other household chemicals. These substances can corrode sewer pipes and seriously affect operation of treatment plants. They will also limit the potential of water reuse, and therefore should not be disposed with household wastewater.

Spills of chemicals, particulates from motor vehicle exhaust and deposition of atmospheric pollutants can similarly contaminate stormwater. These pollutants will affect downstream receiving waters, and treatment systems if the stormwater is treated.

Wastewater and contaminated stormwater can contaminate groundwater. This is through infiltration of the wastewater or stormwater through the soil to unconfined groundwater aquifer. Soil can filter some pollutants (see 2.2 Natural purification processes), but soluble pollutants (e.g. nutrients and heavy metals) and very small particles (e.g. virus) travel with the water to the groundwater aquifer.

Heavy storm events can cause flooding. The effects of flooding can be severe. Water levels in drain, stream and rivers rise considerably and the flow of water can erode soils and embankments. Sediments which have been deposited in quiescent stretches of a stream can be resuspended and transported further downstream. In urban areas the water picks up litter and solid wastes in its path as well as other diffuse pollution sources, and spread these in the downstream flooded areas. Aquatic environments and water-fowl habitats can be destroyed, and these may take some time to recover. The amenity value of these, as well as recreational lakes, is therefore degraded. Engineered structures, such as culvert and bridges, can be choked with wastes and debris, causing more wide-spread flooded areas.

 

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