Swimming in Sewage

This report takes a look at the country’s sewage collection system. Sewage pipes, some as much as 200 years old, carry enough raw sewage to fill the Great Lakes about every four months. Laid end to end, the pipes that carry raw sewage from America ’s homes, businesses, institutions, and industries would stretch to the moon and back—–twice. But in too many communities across the land, pipes are broken or leaking, systems are overloaded, and treatment is sometimes bypassed. The result is that in this most technologically advanced nation on the face of the planet, raw sewage backs up into people’s homes with disturbing frequency, and is routinely permitted to flow into bodies of water that are sources of drinking water.

Theoretically (and by law), all this raw sewage, with its cargo of infectious bacteria, viruses, parasites, and a growing legion of potentially toxic chemicals, gets treated in wastewater treatment plants. But in reality, this aging, often neglected, and sometimes insufficient network of pipes releases untreated or only partly treated sewage directly into the environment. The average age of collection system components is about 33 years, but some pipes still in use are almost 200 years old.