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Most of us understand the importance of wastewater treatment and the harm caused by wastewater pollution, but are we really engaging with these consequences? Wastewater causes immense damage across the world, affecting the social, environmental, and economic sustainability of the whole planet.

Read on to learn more about the consequences of untreated wastewater and about the shared, collective responsibility we all need to adopt if we are to combat this issue.

Damage to Agriculture

Agriculture and industry are often found side-by-side, effectively sharing the same space and resources with one another. This is unsurprising — around half of the world’s habitable land is used for agriculture, after all — but it does lead to potential problems, particularly regarding wastewater. In fact, around 65 percent of downstream irrigated croplands were found within 40 km of an urban area, putting agriculture at significant risk of wastewater pollution and contamination.

A study conducted and published in Environmental Research Letters examined the impact of wastewater on agriculture and on other aspects of human society. The study concluded that around 30 million hectares of land are put at risk by untreated wastewater — an increase of around 50 percent on earlier estimates — and that the worst effects were found on agricultural land in China, India, Pakistan, Mexico, and Iran.

These problems are not limited to the five countries listed above. Here in the United States, the importance of wastewater treatment is similarly acute — agricultural and industrial stakeholders have to share the same land, and have a responsibility to make that land sustainable. While agricultural runoff is an issue, industrial wastewater represents a greater threat to this sustainability.

Ecosystems Are at Risk

It’s not just agricultural land that has to share a space with industry. Natural environments and ecosystems exist side-by-side with industrial facilities. As such, these natural environments need to be protected from wastewater run-off and other contamination. Here in the United States, there have been a number of high-profile instances in which industrial wastewater has put ecosystems directly at risk. One example refers to the Puget Sound, an area in the Pacific Northwest that serves as an important habitat for many species of plant and animal life. It is also the location of some scientifically significant ecosystems. A study conducted in 2015 found 25 contaminating chemicals and pathogens in the waters of Puget Sound, which were believed to have come from untreated effluent escaping sewage treatment plants.

This underlines why it is so important to adopt responsible practices when it comes to wastewater treatment. It’s not enough to simply have the infrastructure in place. This infrastructure needs to be carefully managed, maintained, and overseen to ensure that it is fit for its purpose in the long term. As we discussed, sewage treatment plants can also produce harmful and damaging wastewater that threatens ecosystems. With proper management and regulation, these threats can be mitigated.

Public Health Issues

The health of the general public needs to be a top priority for all business owners and facility managers, at all times. Unfortunately, wastewater pollution puts human health in danger.

We have seen examples of this across the world; in Nigeria, crops irrigated with sewage-contaminated wastewater have been linked to amoeba, Ascaris, and tapeworm outbreaks. In the United States, the citizens of Merrimack, New Hampshire reported increased instances of cardiovascular issues, kidney disease, autoimmune and developmental disorders, and even some cancers following the release of industrial chemicals into the nearby environment back in 2002. In numerous locations around the world, scientists are finding high concentrations of various pathogenic viruses, including noroviruses, enteroviruses, and hepatitis in wastewater.

These examples paint a stark and disturbing picture. They show us the diverse risk profile that wastewater represents when it comes to public health, as well as the harrowing cost that unscrupulous industrial practices exact upon communities around the world. The importance of wastewater treatment certainly relates to ecological and environmental issues, but we cannot forget the social aspect, either.

Regulatory Non-compliance

The first three entries on this list are in no order — each one is critical to the ongoing environmental and social sustainability of this planet we all call home. This final entry is perhaps not of such pressing global importance, but we’ve included it here for practical reasons. Quite simply, in order to run a sustainable business, business owners and facility managers need to toe the line of regulation.

Different jurisdictions operate different regulatory requirements around the world, but here in the United States, businesses are governed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the restrictions they place upon effluent and wastewater. Businesses that do not adhere to the EPA’s regulations could find themselves fined or otherwise heavily sanctioned. In addition, this will damage the reputation of the business in the market, and could result in reduced revenue and lost customers, clients, and partners in the future.

In severe instances, criminal charges may be brought against organizations. If the infringement is deemed to constitute criminal negligence or even willful endangerment, the penalties can be very high. In 2008, Massey Coal was ordered to pay a $20 million fine after their operations systematically polluted rivers across the Appalachian Mountain region.

Wastewater Pollution: A shared responsibility

The importance of wastewater treatment and a keen understanding of wastewater pollution cannot be overstated. It is up to all business owners, across all industries, to take their responsibility seriously, and roll back the damage caused by wastewater. As we have seen, untreated wastewater has devastating consequences for agriculture, ecosystems and habitats, public health, and all manner of other social and ecological sustainability factors. What’s more, a cavalier approach to wastewater erodes the reputations of non-compliant businesses and puts these organizations at a disadvantage in the market.

Of course, it is not only industrial facilities that produce wastewater. Above, we touched upon the danger posed by agricultural run-off and municipal wastewater production. We’ve even seen harmful effluent released by sewage treatment plants themselves. This is what we mean by “a shared responsibility” — everyone, across the entire wastewater producer spectrum, needs to pull together to keep our environment and our communities safe from harm.