EPA’s SepticSmart Week will take place September 13-17, 2021. This event focuses on educating homeowners and communities on the proper care and maintenance of their septic systems. With over one in five households in the U.S. using septic systems, it’s important to learn how homeowners can save money, protect their health, and preserve the environment by following EPA’s SepticSmart Week tips and advice. The National Environmental Health Association also has a webpage devoted to septic system information and resources.
In recent years, climate change has threatened wastewater treatment systems. This means that due to sea-level rise and increased precipitation, your household’s septic system may become less effective at removing contaminants from wastewater and preventing surface water pollution.
Septic systems work by collecting wastewater from your toilet, sink, and shower, allowing the solids to settle at the bottom of the tank, and discharging the liquids to an area called a “drainfield” or “leachfield,” where the wastewater filters through the soil before rejoining the groundwater below (U.S. EPA). However, rising sea levels and increased precipitation are causing groundwater tables to rise in some parts of the U.S., which reduces the distance traveled by the wastewater before it reaches the groundwater. This reduces the capacity of the filtering system (Mihaly, 2017). Additionally, rising temperatures and more frequent rain and snowfall deplete oxygen levels in soil. Oxygen is a necessary component for removing pathogens from wastewater as it filters through the drainfield, and reduced oxygen levels may reduce the effectiveness of this process (Mihaly, 2017). If the drainfield cannot properly filter your household’s wastewater, pathogens and chemical pollutants could make their way into recreational or drinking water sources.
Flooding and storm surging exacerbated by climate change may also lead to septic tank overflows, which can cause wastewater to flood your home or yard and can contaminate surface water. Floods may also dislodge septic tanks from the ground, and disasters such as earthquakes and wildfires can damage tanks (NEHA). This is of especially high concern in areas with old, deteriorating septic system infrastructure.
Residential wastewater pollution can result in foul odors, closure of swimming areas, and loss of biodiversity and aquatic habitats. If your household uses a septic system and also gets its water from a private well, a malfunctioning septic system could result in wastewater contaminants leaching into your drinking water. The bacteria, parasites, and viruses present in wastewater can cause meningitis, gastroenteritis, cholera, dysentery, hepatitis, and other illnesses (Chahal et al, 2016).
To reduce the risk of your septic system malfunctioning, it’s important to properly care for your system. Regular septic system maintenance costs around $250-$300 per year – much less than the $3,000-$7,000 it costs to replace an entire system – and prevents your property value from depreciating. Proper maintenance also prevents contamination by disease-causing pathogens and chemical pollutants, protecting your health and the environment (U.S. EPA).
Household septic systems should be inspected at least once every three years by a licensed professional, and household tanks should be pumped every three to five years. How often you should get your tank pumped depends on the size of your household, the volume of wastewater and waste solids generated, and the size of your septic tank (U.S. EPA).
On a daily basis, you can care for your septic system by using water efficiently. Using high-efficiency toilets, faucets, and showerheads and spreading washing machine use throughout the week can reduce the risk of your septic system failing. In addition, be sure to properly dispose of all household waste – do not flush anything besides human waste and toilet paper down the toilet, and avoid pouring chemical drain cleaners, oils, grease, or oil-based paints down your sink. In order to maintain your drainfield, never park, drive, plant trees, or place rainwater drainage systems in the drainfield area (U.S. EPA).
This SepticSmart Week, keep your septic system running smoothly and prevent wastewater from contaminating your drinking and swimming water. As sea levels and temperatures continue to rise, proper septic system maintenance is more crucial than ever to protect your own health and that of your community.
Chahal, C., van den Akker, B., Young, F., Franco, C., Blackbeard, J., & Monis, P. (2016). Pathogen and Particle Associations in Wastewater: Significance and Implications for Treatment and Disinfection Processes. Advances in applied microbiology, 97, 63–119. https://doi.org/10.1016/bs.aambs.2016.08.001
Mihaly, E. (2017). Avoiding Septic Shock: How Climate Change Can Cause Septic System Failure and Whether New England States are Prepared. Conservation Law Foundation. Retrieved from https://www.clf.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/Avoiding-Septic-Shock_CLF-White-Paper_2017.pdf
National Environmental Health Association, n.d. Preparedness & Response for Septic Systems. Retrieved from https://www.neha.org/eh-topic/preparedness-response-septic-systems
United States Environmental Protection Agency, n.d. Septic Systems. Retrieved from https://www.epa.gov/septic
Blog Author: Alyssa Wooden
Alyssa Wooden is a project coordinator at NEHA based in Washington, D.C. She joined NEHA in June 2021 after receiving a Master of Health Science from Johns Hopkins University.