Pete Bursztyn takes a closer look at what’s getting flushed.
Nomads seldom remained in any one place long. That changed when permanent settlements were established. These inevitably led to contamination of nearby water supplies. Human and animal feces, even if deposited on land, eventually leach into surface waters and shallow wells. There, they infected people drinking the water; diseases spread by drinking tainted water, including various forms of diarrhea, cholera, polio, typhoid, hepatitis A, etc.
The trigger was a recent story (January 17th, 2023) from the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction reporting that people should consume no more than two drinks per week.1 They suggested this modest consumption could be linked to “seven types of cancer, as well as heart and liver disease, dementia and lower respiratory infections”.
People have been drinking wine for 6000 years in the Caucasus and the Middle East’s “fertile crescent”. China lays claim to the first wine, dating back 9000 years ago. Beer is similarly ancient. Since then human life spans more than doubled. It sounds foolish to suggest that alcohol was, somehow, responsible for this and beneficial to health, but let’s consider that thought.
Permanent settlements led to the “invention” of alcohol. It is an “invention”? If you leave grape juice for a few days, it becomes wine. Settled folk had clay pots; hard for nomads to carry. These were vital for wine and beer production. Beer started with a gruel or porridge. Cooking the grain released its sugars and starches. The cooled “mash” was left to ferment like wine. Some early beer recipes added grape juice to speed fermentation. (Grape skins are coated with Saccharomyces cerevisiae, the yeast responsible for converting sugar into alcohol.) Reusing the fermentation vessel also did this because the porous clay couldn’t be thoroughly cleaned – no need for grape juice.
It became clear that people who consumed wine or beer suffered less diarrhea than if they drank water. The alcohol content of wine (~12%) was high enough to kill most pathogenic bacteria. Although beer had less alcohol (3% to 6%), because the mash had been boiled, it was sterile! In mediaeval times, even children were given “small beer” to drink instead of water. Made from the 3rd washing of the mash, it contained little alcohol, but was free of pathogenic microbes. Unfortunately, not everybody could afford these beverages.
One solution was well water. Water from even a shallow well is filtered through soil. Britain’s London was peppered with such wells. Their naturally filtered water was normally fairly clean. Inadvertently, a 19th century idea undermined the water quality in rivers.
In mediaeval times, human waste was deposited in chamber pots. Horrible though this sounds, these were often emptied by tossing the contents out a window into the street! More elegantly, the material could be poured into a cesspit, a simple containment pit – if the house had one. Its liquids gradually leaked into the surrounding soil. But cesspits eventually filled with solid material.
That’s when “night soil men” were called to bail it out. They would cart it beyond the city limits, where they sold the stuff to farmers as fertilizer. As cities grew, the night soil men had to travel farther to sell their loads, so could make fewer trips per night. Of course, they raised their fees. Some people could not afford to pay, and their cesspits eventually overflowed.
Mediaeval streets had never been sweet smelling. Feces of various animals (horses, dogs, cattle, sheep, rats, etc) were joined by chamber pot contents, not to mention dead animals . . . The odour was offensive enough to convince many that this “miasma” caused disease! (The Oxford English Dictionary defines “miasma” as a “noxious vapour”.) Eminent people were so certain miasma caused disease they named malaria “mala aria” or “bad air” simply because of its association with smelly swamps.
In an attempt to clear the air and the diseases supposedly caused by it, City governments built sewers. But these simply connected cesspits to a river or the sea, where the woeful mess was discharged! In London, this was the Thames River; the drinking water source for many citizens . . .
The work of Dr. John Snow (1813-1858) showed that cholera was caused by sewage-tainted water. For a few people, the tainted water came from a City well which had become contaminated by a nearby leaky cesspit. Dr. Snow is famous for removing the handle of the Broad Street pump, thus stopping the epidemic (not entirely accurate). He also showed that residents whose (piped) water came from parts of the Thames tainted by sewage discharges were also victims of the cholera epidemic.
By 1865, Joseph Bazalgette’s London sewer project was completed. This directed London’s sewage far down the Thames River, below drinking water intakes. By 1878, Paris had built 600km of sewers. (All these were eclipsed by ancient projects like Rome’s cloaca maxima (circa 600BC), a 2600 year-old sewer which took part of Rome’s sewage to the sea.)
These early systems were built to carry sewage away from urban areas. Then it was simply dumped, usually into the sea. There the mantra “dilution is the solution to pollution” seemed to apply! In time, physical and chemical treatment of sewage was carried out before dumping. Today’s sewage treatment plants are highly sophisticated installations whose output is clear, odourless, and often safe to drink.
Unfortunately, they work so well and so unobtrusively we tend to forget the vital role they play! Don’t underestimate the importance of sewage treatment, and its “partner”, the water treatment plant. These sanitation devices are responsible for much of the tripling of human lifespans in the developed world – a larger effect than all of modern surgery and medicine, although these helped too!
On January 30th, 2023, The Economist magazine reported on a problem plaguing British sewers and sewage treatment facilities – so called “flushable wipes”. These are responsible for the bulk of sewer blockages, and the most common reason sewage treatment plants must close parts of their facilities for cleaning.2 Flushable wipes are 9 times more likely to block sewers than is toilet paper. Although some wipes are labelled “biodegradeable”, their rate of decomposition is very slow. They definitely do not remove themselves quickly enough to be useful!
What are described as “floating, rock-like masses formed of fat, grease and trash like wet wipes and diapers” have been found in Toronto Harbour (February 7th, 2023).3
I toured Barrie’s sewage plant on February 22nd. Greg Jordon, Manager of Wastewater Operations, told me they also have a problem with “flushables”. Parts of the facility have had to be shut down for cleaning out these materials. Although the plant is operating well within design specifications, they now lack spare capacity. As a starting point for collecting other materials, these “flushables” have become a central problem.
Barrie residents should understand our sewage treatment plant is a very complex “machine”. It actually performs better than had been expected in the design stage. The plant’s anaerobic digester generates methane gas which fuels generators producing much of the electricity needed to power the facility! Waste heat from its internal combustion engines warms sewage during processing. (This is exactly like the waste heat from your car’s engine defrosts your windshield in winter and toasts your toes!) This heating speeds digestion, reducing the (prime waterfront) space the plant needs to occupy!
Please help our sewage treatment plant do its vital work. Never dispose of “flushable” wipes, disposable diapers, sanitary pads or even dental floss (a surprising hazard for sewage pumps) into our drains! Don’t pour cooking fats down our drains either; this is the “glue” binding the other materials together. (This refers to the contents of your deep fryer, not the smaller amounts you wash from a frying pan!)
The sewage plant belongs to us all. Let’s work to protect it.
Help to keep maintenance costs as low as possible!