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We’ll answer this question straight away — wastewater treatment plants should not release unpleasant smells. At least, not with the right odor control methods in place. Let’s take a look at this common misconception of wastewater treatment, along with a few others, as we seek to dispel the myths surrounding these facilities.
The myth: Wastewater treatment plants smell
Do wastewater treatment plants smell? A common belief regarding wastewater treatment plants is that they produce bad odors that travel into the atmosphere and the surrounding environment. This makes sense — after all, the reason for treating wastewater in the first place is to remove unpleasant chemicals and compounds. It’s not unreasonable for local community groups and individuals to be concerned about the smell.
The truth: The treatment plant should not smell if odor control methods are put in place
There are indeed bad odors associated with wastewater treatment. These include odors of ammonia and the decomposition of organic materials. Amines and mercaptans can also cause bad smells due to their sulfur content. However, treatment plants can effectively work against them by deploying carbon filters, biofilters, wet air scrubbing, chemical agents, neutralizing mists, and other odor control methods to prevent the smell.
The myth: Wastewater treatment poses a risk to public health
If a wastewater treatment plant is located in or close to a community, it is not unusual for local residents to become alarmed. Again, because these wastewater treatment plants are dealing with hazardous chemicals and substances, there is a worry that this could put the local populace at risk. This is a common point of friction between facility managers and groups in the nearby community.
The truth: Safety measures protect public health with a high degree of effectiveness
Wastewater treatment plants are not immune from risk. There have been serious incidents, such as the explosions that injured 10 people at the Calumet Water Reclamation Plant in Chicago in August 2018. The incident was a methane gas buildup, ignited by a flame from a welding torch that triggered the explosion, but there are many other areas of a facility that could be considered dangerous to public health.
However, such incidents are incredibly rare. Of more than 16,000 wastewater treatment plants across the USA, the overwhelming majority of them operate safely and without incident. This is thanks to high levels of regulation and support from bodies such as the EPA, which provide resources aimed at ensuring safe operation for wastewater plants and their local communities.
The myth: Wastewater treatment is environmentally unsafe
It is not just public safety that is sometimes considered to be at risk due to wastewater treatment technology — the environment is also a major cause for concern. This perception is largely down to the associations that wastewater plants carry — the unpleasant materials that these plants handle tend to be associated with bad odors and public health hazards, as discussed, and ecological hazards, too. Industry outsiders may be concerned about what happens to the local environment if there is a spillage of wastewater, or if toxic chemicals are released into the atmosphere.
The truth: Wastewater treatment is an ecological necessity
There is a great deal of truth behind these concerns. Wastewater treatment plants do handle dangerous chemicals and compounds that would be highly damaging if they were released into the local water table, or into the atmosphere as gases. There are many different types of wastewater plants out there — some handle human or animal waste, while others handle industrial run-off. Some are civic projects, while others are privately owned. What’s more, different types of plants handle different chemicals — from nitrogen and phosphorus to detergents.
The truth is, without these wastewater plants, these hazardous substances would be released into the local environment. The whole point of these facilities is to provide an important line of defense against ecological contamination and damage. As long as the treatment plant is properly managed and operated, it represents an important asset that keeps our waterways, atmosphere, and natural habitats safe.
The myth: Wastewater treatment facilities are dangerous places to work
In America, everyone has the right to go about their work in a safe and secure manner, free from undue risk or threat to personal well-being. Due to the negative associations of wastewater treatment plants, employment practices in this industry have come under significant scrutiny. Some may believe that these plants put their employees at risk of harm, and they may have a negative opinion of these kinds of facilities as a result.
The truth: Regulation and best practices are geared toward employee safety.
Sadly, there have been fatal accidents at wastewater treatment plants. In 2016, a 42-year-old employee was tragically killed in an accident at Wichita Falls, Texas, while his colleague was seriously injured. In another high-profile incident — 12 years earlier — a worker was killed and two others seriously injured at the sewage treatment plant of Spokane, Washington.
While it is upsetting to hear of deaths in any workplace, lethal incidents at wastewater treatment facilities are mercifully few and far between. In 2019, 111 roofers were killed on the job in the United States at a fatal incident rate of 50 per 100,000 workers. Over the same period, 1,005 delivery drivers sadly lost their lives in incidents at work, at a rate of 28 per 100,000. Logging was deemed the most dangerous job for Americans, claiming the lives of 46 workers in 2019 at a rate of 70 per 100,000. Wastewater treatment plants did not feature in the top 25 most dangerous industries to work.
As we’ve already noted above, these plants do carry hazardous substances and they do feature dangerous environments. However, these risks are carefully managed, and operations are regulated to keep employees — and the general public — safe.
Ongoing improvement for wastewater plants
As society becomes more engaged with environmental issues, wastewater treatments plants will continue to play a role in eliminating toxic chemicals and hazardous materials from waste. What’s more, they will become better — cleaner, safer, and more efficient, with increasingly effective odor control. Hopefully, in time, this will lead to a change in the public perception of these important pieces of industrial infrastructure.