Septic systems and storm water — Is there a connection?

By Karen Mancl, professor in the Ohio State University Department of Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering

More than a dozen people have died from eating contaminated fruit this year. Beach closures occur all over Ohio, giving the state the reputation as having some of the most polluted beaches in the United States.

Where does the contamination come from? One serious source is the illicit discharge of home septic systems to storm sewers and ditches. In Franklin County, Ohio, for example, sewage has been found illegally leaking from 1,500 storm sewer outlets. Under federal law, the search continues to find sources of raw sewage that pollute water used for irrigating food and beaches where families want to play.

It’s gross

Diseases like the “stomach flu” are caused by eating food or drinking water contaminated by human sewage. Salmonella, Hepatitis A, Norwalk virus, Cryptosporidium and Giardia are just some of the pathogens spread through ingestion of human sewage on food or in water. Symptoms of these diseases include nausea, diarrhea and vomiting.

Fortunately, research at The Ohio State University (OSU) and other universities is developing systems to protect Ohio’s beaches, waterways and irrigation water. A conference on the topic will be held in Columbus, Feb. 2 and 3, 2012.

It’s expensive

Raw sewage discharges every year from sanitary sewers, designed and installed to carry sewage from homes to treatment plants. Sewage overflows sanitary sewers in dozens of locations. Sewage overflows are a problem in nearly every large city in the United States. Repairing the sewers and expanding their capacity costs cities like Columbus billions of dollars.

Low cost ways to manage and treat sewage

OSU research is seeking new, effective and low cost ways to prevent sewage contamination and to treat sanitary sewer overflows. The research draws from onsite treatment systems now used in rural areas for a new application in cities and towns that experience overflows of raw sewage during wet weather.

New disinfection systems for treated wastewater are also a subject of OSU research.  New, more powerful disinfectants are being studied that can quickly kill pathogens in treated wastewater. Public health research at OSU is also focused on quickly detecting disease organisms on fresh produce and in beach water.

To learn more about the threat of disease from discharging sewage systems look for fact sheets Fecal-Oral Pathogens in Water AEX 769 and Waterborne Illness AEX 770 both available at your local OSU Extension office. The fact sheets also are available online at At the same website, it is easy to register for the upcoming Ohio Water Quality and Waste Management Conference “Septic Systems and Storm Water — Is there a connection?”

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