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Recycled wastewater safer than previously thought

A recent report claims that highly treated sewage is just as safe as drinking water, at times even safer.

Recycling has gained momentum over the last few decades. Everything from jogging tracks to coffee warmers are being constructed from reconstituted trash. In a report released on Tuesday, the National Research Council has set its sights on a new wasted resource: sewage.

As the US population increases, water supplies are becoming scarce, especially in arid regions like the Southwest. "Wastewater is a drought-proof supply. People are always generating wastewater," Jorg Drewes, a water expert who contributed to the report, told the Los Angeles Times. "That can be a very viable option, the committee felt, compared to imported water and other options."

The use of treated wastewater has been around for a while, although local residents might not know of the practice or how it finds its way into their household taps. Just east of Las Vegas, Lake Mead is the country’s largest reservoir and provides water to a large portion of the Southwest. It’s also the home to all of Las Vegas’s treated sewage.  

As unsettling as that may sound, the panel’s 346-page report increasingly leaned towards such options, contrary to a previous recommendation from the research council. In 1998, the council claimed that treated wastewater should only be incorporated into drinking supplies as “an option of last resort,” reports the Times.

"We have more operation experience on potable reuse projects in the country and we have a much better understanding of the risk," Drewes said. For the study, the panel analyzed samples of tap water and aquifers partly filled with treated sewage, testing for pathogens and 24 chemicals. It found that water with treated sewage was no more dangerous than tap water, and in terms of pathogens, could even be safer.

Although many communities implement wastewater for irrigation and industrial processes, the report states that almost half of the wastewater produced goes to waste, according to USA Today. The US generates 32 billion gallons of wastewater daily, 12 billion of which is redirected to oceans or estuaries. If processed for reuse, this discarded wastewater would account for 6% of America’s total daily usage.

"We flush it down the toilet, literally," Olga Naidenko, a researcher at the non-profit Environmental Working Group, told USA Today. “We have to do something.”


By Editor Will Cade