How wastewater puts dogs (and our health) at risk — and what to do about it

Excessive nutrients from toilets, soaps and food waste are leading to more toxic algae, insufficient oxygen and other problems. | August 5, 2021

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In the early 1500s, Swiss physician Paracelsus famously wrote, “Poison is in everything, and no thing is without poison. The dosage makes it either a poison or a remedy.”

This medical maxim isn’t just something for old-timey doctors to live by (and ideally to not kill people by, but it was 500 years ago, so…). Our bodies are quite like nature’s systems; water and nutrients flow in and out, supported by — and supporting — other lifeforms in mind-boggling, elegant cycles. If one part of the cycle gets gummed up by too much of a good thing, the other parts react accordingly.

We’re talking, of course, about the most elegant, nutrient-rich part of our bodies’ and the planet’s cycles: Poop and pee — along with the other nutrient-rich stuff that goes down drains like soaps, fertilizer and food waste. Wastewater is full of nitrogen and phosphorus, two nutrients common in fertilizers that help plants and algae grow. But what happens when there are too many nutrients in a given system?

Less-treated wastewater = more toxic algae

Now, with a population-dense Western Washington and 67 wastewater treatment plants releasing water and excessive nutrients from toilets and sinks directly into the Salish Sea, we’ve got way, way too much of a “good thing”. Most of these treatment plants were built decades ago and were not designed to limit nutrient discharges or treat the range of contaminants wastewater now contains, including pharmaceuticals and even flame retardants.

The biggest issue — excessive nutrients — provide so much food for algae and bacteria that they grow explosively. When they die, they decompose and suck oxygen out of the water, leading to dead zones where fish and other aquatic life cannot live.

To make matters worse, all the dead algae adds carbon dioxide to the water, which worsens ocean acidification and dissolves the shells of shellfish. As is often the case, climate impacts such as warming seas compound our challenges by accelerating algae and bacteria growth.

Oh, and certain types of algal blooms can kill pets.

Lax sewage treatment rules even puts dogs at risk

This summer, our pollution prevention specialist Kirsten was visiting one of her favorite state parks, Deception Pass, with her dog. Just as the dog was about to put her paw into the water, a woman on the trail yelled out a warning: “Hey watch out, my dog almost died from swimming in that same water just last week!” Many pet owners may not be so lucky.

Some species of algae produce toxins that, when ingested, are harmful or even fatal to pets and people alike. I’m very glad this other visitor and her dog knew to warn others, because it’s not always incredibly clear to the untrained eye when nutrient-laden water is host to these toxic algae. This is not a rare occurrence, either.

Why do we need a better permit standard for wastewater treatment plants?

Even if Whatcom and Skagit Counties don’t have the metropolitan volumes of poop water chugging through its treatment plants that Seattle or Tacoma does, the accumulated contaminants add up. Combined, the two counties generate 57.67 million gallons of wastewater every single day — and that does not include places that discharge into rivers, such as Lyden into the Nooksack River.

Here’s why we need to deal with this:

  • Existing standards only require plants to use “Secondary” treatment, which does not control nitrogen, the main pollutant in our wastewater.
  • Washington Tribes have identified the need to upgrade wastewater treatment plants as integral to supporting treaty rights. Anything that impacts aquatic life, such as shellfish or salmon, impacts people.
  • These needed upgrades will only get more costly over time, and more urgent as growth continues and climate impacts exacerbate our problems. Delaying this transition only increases the financial burden on future generations.
  • Seattle and other large producers of wastewater are lagging behind smaller towns like Sequim, which has a state-of-the-art treatment plant. Since the Puget Sound’s waters are very interconnected, pollution travels far from large sources.
  • 16 plants have already upgraded their nutrient-removal technology in the Puget Sound region, as well as Spokane and other eastern Washington communities. Let’s get the rest up to par!
Ask Ecology to take action by August 16th, 2021

While we can be grateful that we no longer have to empty out the chamber pot every morning, we need to talk about sewage and ask Washington to do better. Two decades of scientific research confirm that municipal sewage treatment plants are the biggest human source of Puget Sound’s nutrient problem.

Join us in urging the state Department of Ecology to set better standards for wastewater treatment. We can require wastewater treatment plants to use better available technology to  prevent oxygen-starved waterways, chemicals from pharmaceuticals, toxic flame retardants from laundry, and more.

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Photo by Eric Creitz