Most homes and businesses are connected to public sewage systems that process wastewater at treatment plants under strict guidelines. Yet in many areas there are homes that use septic systems. Water from dishwashing, bathing, toilets and laundry is collected in a septic tank or cesspool, and discharged into the ground. This household wastewater contains bacteria and viruses that can spread human disease, as well as harmful chemicals such as nitrates and anything else poured down the drain. In areas with only a few septic systems on large acreages, the wastes are adequately treated or diluted and do not harm people or the environment. In areas that are packed with one or more septic systems per acre, contamination can occur.
Sewer districting is the one sure way to protect from septic system contamination of groundwater. As rural areas grow into small towns, suburbs or even cities, the installation of a sewer system—where wastes are moved by pipes from homes to a central treatment facility to properly process human and household wastes, is the correct action.
Septic Tank Maintenance
In areas where septic systems are adequate to treat wastes, it is important to keep them working properly. Wastes accumulate in septic tanks. They are not bottomless pits. It is important to “pump” excess waste out of the septic tank on a periodic basis —every one to three years depending on usage, demand, and size of property.
When it rains or snows, the oil and chemical contaminants on streets and sidewalks are washed down storm sewers or on the ground. These potential contaminants can slowly filter down to groundwater aquifers below. Grass, plants and other vegetation are natural “filters” for contaminants. It is important to have ground cover like grass in areas where stormwater collects to remove many of the contaminants. We call these “grassy swales” or grass infiltration areas. This simple practice can greatly reduce the potential for contaminants washed off streets and other impervious surfaces. Grassy swales biologically treat up to 90% of contaminants before they reach groundwater supplies below.
The second obvious way to protect from stormwater contamination is to keep automobiles leak free, keep chemicals and fertilizers only on the lawn surfaces where they belong, and avoid use of hazardous materials on or near surfaces that may drain into the ground or down storm sewers.
Household Chemical Management
According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the average American disposes of about one pound of household hazardous waste a year. Hazardous wastes in simple terms are toxic substances. Any of the below-mentioned substances can contaminate groundwater:
You can protect groundwater supplies from household chemical contamination by following a few simple rules:
- Buy the least toxic product available. Read the label.
- Buy only the amount you need.
- Follow label directions—more is not necessarily better!
- Give leftovers to someone who can use them.
- Properly dispose or recycle waste or unused items. First, store in an appropriate container that is sealed with contents marked on the outside. Take them to your local hazardous waste disposal station. If you do not have one in your community, many municipal authorities have annual disposal events where marked containers are accepted for proper disposal.