Not the kind of front-page coverage the water industry wants
April 27, 2009

The Associated Press is distributing a story highlighting increased concentrations of pharmaceuticals in the water treated and returned to the environment by municipal wastewater treatment plants serving pharmaceutical factories. The story naturally gets abbreviated by headline-writers into "Factories dumping drugs into sewage" on MSNBC and "Studies find factories release pharmaceuticals" in the Kansas City Star. Unfortunately, though, short headlines on stories like this tend to give the public the impression that the nation's water professionals are either careless or deliberately polluting the water. It would be difficult to land farther from the truth. Many communities face a dual problem: First, modern wastewater treatment depends mainly upon biological processes like aeration and anaerobic digestion to clear the water and turn organic waste into safe byproducts. Those biological processes are simply not capable in most cases of removing complex pollutants from the water, any more than using a metal detector would be any good at locating a plastic bucket. But the second problem is that municipalities are perpetually fighting an uphill battle to set water and wastewater-treatment rates at an appropriate level to fund the treatment they need. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that the nation will need $255 billion in wastewater infrastructure improvements over the next five years, but that we're only on track to fund about half of that amount. Yet, even though water and sewer fees are almost negligible as a component of most household budgets, raising rates is one of the most difficult political moves public officials can try to make, because of the widespread (but mistaken) perception that water is "free". Correcting that perception will take a long time, and something more than the occasional frightening story about drugs in the water.

April 2009
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last revised April 2009