By Heather Jennings, PE, Senior Project Engineer for Probiotic Solutions®

I was attending a wastewater conference and overheard an operator talking about how a drug bust turned his lagoon orange and almost put him out of compliance with his permit. At another location, I was told that the city I was visiting had been hit by an unexpected source of ammonia that almost “wiped out” their bugs. I asked an operator if it was possible that the influent to his wastewater system might have illicit drugs in it. His reply was to the effect that, although he frequently found drug paraphernalia in his screens, he didn’t know of any illicit drugs being present in his system. So, I started wondering what illicit drug impacts really have on wastewater systems. The following is what I found.

Read the entire article online in the August 2018 issue of Water & Wastes Digest:

Download a PDF version of the article.

Conclusion: Here’s what we can do about it.

Operators and municipalities need to realize that their systems can be significantly impacted by commonly abused and illicit drugs. They should also understand that they are not alone. It is not just a United States problem: other nations are struggling with these same issues. Developing a pretreatment program and enforcing existing programs for industrial and commercial users can be very useful in isolating locations within the collection systems into which chemicals can be dumped. Proactively adding pH meters into branch lines in areas where illegal dumping can occur will provide advance warning to WWTPs. When WWTP upgrades are considered, more sophisticated treatments such as membranes, mixed bed bioreactors, and tertiary treatment can reduce PPCPs and illicit drugs from leaving in the effluent.3 Additional sewer epidemiology lab testing can also be a valuable tool in identifying the locations of contaminant sources.

If pretreatment and upgrades are not possible, developing partnerships and notification protocols with local police departments and drug enforcement agencies may be the single most effective thing that wastewater operators can do to be alerted to potential impacts to wastewater systems and to more quickly and knowledgeably address potential upsets within their systems.

The occurrence and impact of commonly abused and illicit drugs in WWTPs is a problem that is likely to grow. Plant operators must be vigilant and prepared. Although not designed as such, WWTPs are the last line of defense in protecting our water resources from drug pollution.


About the Author

Larry Cooper

Director, Sustainability & Knowledge Management, Huma, Inc. Lifelong learner, master gardener, rescuer of greyhounds, grandpa. Once served detention for placing ecology flag on top of his high school.

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