Blooming Toxins: Nutrient Imbalance In Wastewater Creating A Global Health Threat

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Blooming Toxins: Nutrient Imbalance In Wastewater Creating A Global Health Threat

17 June 2020
 Categories: , Blog

More communities are waking up to emergency orders not to drink the water because of unsafe levels of toxins. The cause of the toxicity is an increase in the often stunning red, blue-green, and copper algae blooms appearing on waterways. The blooms are deceptively beautiful, though. The toxins, created by a nutrient imbalance in wastewater discharge, are posing more harm to humans, animals, and the ecosystem.

Removal of excess biological nutrients in a balanced fashion during wastewater treatment has become a priority, and could soon be mandated by regulators. 

Imbalanced Nutrients in Wastewater Treatment 

Globally, environmental health agencies are studying the increase in toxic algae blooms on lakes and streams. Recent studies have found the wastewater treatment problem is worse than previously thought. The findings could ultimately lead to the regulation and enforcement of toxin levels to protect human health and the environment. 

More wastewater treatment plants are being developed globally to provide clean and safe water. But the sustainable development goals of improving domestic wastewater treatment worldwide are currently at odds with maintaining a healthy ecosystem. Instead, unbalanced biological nutrient removal is discharging dangerously high levels of toxins into waterways. 

Rising Algae Blooms

These toxins form algae blooms, known as cyanobacteria. Algae likes to feed on phosphorous. But when the water contains more phosphorous than nitrogen, toxins are created. The increase in algae blooms is shutting down more municipal water systems. 

Regulators are gaining an understanding of the magnitude of the problem while asking municipalities to measure the cyanobacteria levels in their waterways, in particular, microcystin. Although microcystin levels are not yet regulated, the EPA has regulated public water systems to test for the cyanotoxin between 2018 and 2020.

Earlier results are concerning. Microcystin has been found in freshwater lakes in 48 states. And these levels are increasing. In many cases, the levels of this algae toxin exceed EPA and WHO guidelines. Creating another risk to human health, the toxin is being found in fish. 

Biological Nutrient Removal Balancing Solutions

To balance the complementary goals of wastewater treatment and healthy ecosystems, more wastewater treatment facilities are using biological nutrient removal solutions. And given the increase in cyanobacteria, regulators are likely to mandate their use. 

Biological nutrient removal systems balance the amounts of phosphorous and nitrogen. After treatment with biological nutrient removal solutions, the nutrients in sludge from municipal and industrial wastewater systems are balanced. When agriculture uses the sludge to provide nutrients to the soil, the biological nutrients entering the waterways are both reduced and balanced.