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View Full Version : is the smell of sewage a health hazard?


Ross
06-08-2001, 03:56 PM
Okay. I live in Govan, just south of the Clyde, the main river of Glasgow. Maybe a mile further south is a recently-built sewage works. It is... and I cannot express the pain of this sentence adequately without a whole new range of smilies... DOWNWIND. This places us upwind, which explains why large areas of Govan are cursed with a constant stench of excreta and what smells like boiled turnips.

I've spoken to a number of health professionals, none of them with any direct experience of such matters, but all reckon it's well away from a healthy sign. Can it POSSIBLY be safe to live in an area smelling of crap? I mean, smell is just airborne molecules, right? I'm inhaling lungfuls of the stuff every time I breathe. So are children and budgies. And it's not like an occasional whiff...

:mad: :o :eek:

fierra
06-08-2001, 05:09 PM
Ross...no comments on the health implications (although being unable to eat because of the smell could have a long term impact :bleugh: ) but you've got your downwinds & upwinds muddled. If something is upwind of you, the wind carries the smell down to you (same with upstream & downstream in a river), if it were downwind of you, you wouldn't smell it.

partly_warmer
06-08-2001, 05:48 PM
Originally posted by Ross
Okay. I live in Govan, just south of the Clyde, the main river of Glasgow. Maybe a mile further south is a recently-built sewage works. ...
I've spoken to a number of health professionals, none of them with any direct experience of such matters, but all reckon it's well away from a healthy sign. Can it POSSIBLY be safe to live in an area smelling of crap? I mean, smell is just airborne molecules, right?
The key is your paraphrase "none of them have any direct experience". That's doctor-speak for "I have no idea."

Chemicals can (sometimes) be smelled well before they reach anything like dangerous levels. Shit smells bad to us not because it is necessarily harmful, but because it soon grows bacteria, etc., that are most certainly harmful.

You're never going to get the sewage works to admit they are putting out hazardous material. There's built-in denial at work, there. Also, there are so many toxins it's unlikely they would even know what they all were.

I'd say the bottom line is: if it makes you feel sick, there's something wrong with it. Buy a HEPA air purifier, unless the problem is with poisonous gas, the HEPA will probably filter it out. It won't hurt.

Ross
06-08-2001, 07:14 PM
Why is it impoverished areas are allowed to drift so far?
Thanx guys. I knew I'd get the upwind thing wrong.

I'm going to write to someone. Healthy or not I can taste shit in the air.

I'm now going off to the pit to expound on this angry little subject of inner-city standards a little more loudly.

Tranquilis
06-08-2001, 07:51 PM
Hydrogen Sulfide, H2S (rotten-egg smell from sewage) is quite poisonous in sufficient quantities. Hydrogen Sulphide gas builds up in liquid manure and is a silent killer as it cannot be smelled or detected by human senses at high concentrations. <Italics mine>

Information on regulations regarding Hydrogen Sulphide for the state of Texas can be found here (http://www.tnrcc.state.tx.us/permitting/airperm/nsr_permits/files/rg339.pdf) (Requires Acrobat Reader).

As noted in the document, Hydrogen Sulfide is a by-product of, among other things, waste water treatment. Maybe you'd like to ask a few pointed questions on the subject to local enviromental officials.

honkytonkwillie
06-09-2001, 03:13 AM
Although I work in a wastewater treatment plant, I don't really have an answer about the health ramifications of the smell. My treatment plant just doesn't smell that strongly. Our shit just doesn't stink.

It definitely sounds like something anaerobic. Aerobic processes don't produce much odor. There are a few ways that treatment plants can reduce and/or contain odor, but those concerns tend to be secondary to the main job of making the water clean enough to discharge. You say the plant is new, so maybe they haven't brought everything on-line yet.

Probably the best thing to do is try and take a tour of the plant and get an understanding of how the treatment process works. This ought to be pretty easy to arrange, especially if the plant was built with public money (medium sized plants can easily exceed $50 million dollars to build), as they are part of the comminity and most likely don't wish anger the people they serve.

Hopefully Clydebank is upwind from the wastewater treatment plant. Mrs. Tonk has family there and we're visiting next year.

Tamerlane
06-09-2001, 03:18 AM
I wouldn't worry about the Hydrogen Sulfide. The "low-tide", "rotten egg" smell of estuaries ( and sewage treatment facilities ) is due to H2S produced by anaerobic bacteria ( and a very few unique animals like Echiuran worms ) that use a sulfur-based metabolic pathway. And if you can smell it - It's not dangerous. H2S ( You'll have to excuse me - I don't know the small code for vB ), is odorless at high concentrations because it deadens the sense of smell nearly instantaneously once it passes a certain threshhold concentration. In concentrations low enough to smell, it's harmless, if unpleasant.

It's a danger in treatment plants because it's heavier than air and will sink into confined areas and accumulate. More than a few wastewater plant workers have died that way - It's one of the deadliest hazards in the field. That's why we have very stringent confined space entry rules, that include appropriate air-testing equipment. When I used to work in the "Digestors" section as a Plant Operator at a WWTP, I always used to carry a "sniffer" when doing my rounds in the underground pipe galleries to check for methane, O2 levels, and H2S ( the triple-threat of WWTP atmospheric hazards ). One thing we were trained to notice was that if you smelled H2S, then very suddenly the odor disappeared - Vamoose! It may mean that the concentration just passed into the olfactory nerve deadening level and you have a very short time indeed before it kills you. It's very fast acting once it hits the danger threshhold - That's why if you see a man down you NEVER go after them without testing the air first. If it's bad enough it will take you out as well. There are documented cases of half-a-dozen or more operators dieing, one after the other, as they rushed in trying to pull out their buddies.

Put all the scary talk aside, the properties that make it so deadly ( its sinking, accumulating nature ), means it doesn't spread readily ( although the odor is so intense it carries a very long way - all it takes is a few molecules to excite the olfactory nerve - that's why those places can reek for miles ). No well-ventilated area is at risk. It will never get to threatening levels outside the confines of a vault somewhere at a treatment plant. WWT plants don't tend to be a real health threat ( barring a massive chemical spill or an explosion of course ) to surrounding communities - They're just annoying as hell.

However odor CAN make you nauseated and in my book, that's the same as making you sick. If you can't function fully because you feel like puking all the time, what difference is there?

Just because it can't kill you, doesn't mean you have to put up with it. No one should have to smell that crap unless they're getting paid good money for it ( and yes, I'm happy to have switched from wastewater to water reclamation :D ). All decent treatment facilities have odor-control programs, usually utilizing some combination of air-scrubbers and chlorination. Although they aren't nearly 100% effective ( unless the place shells out for really expensive state-of-the-art stuff and has an appropriate design ), they should at least keep it at acceptable levels most of the time. Hell, we had a program where someone had to take a truck out every night and smell for odors at intervals, a few blocks out in every direction from our plant ( it was in a mixed industrial/residential area ). Not to mention that if we got a complaint, we were required to jump on it and check it out.

If you're a mile away and its bad every single day ( as opposed to the occasional occurence - shit does happen, so to speak :p ), I wouldn't put up with it. Go scream at your local politician to crack down on these guys. They may have to spend money ( which may end up coming out as an increased sewage bill for you ). But there ARE solutions.

Postscript: The place I used to work now stinks to high heaven on the weekends when I drive by - That never would have been acceptable when I worked there :( . It's all due to cost-cutting ( savings through reduced chemical feeds ) and local ( mostly poor and minority ) residents getting tired of constantly having to bitch and getting only a belated or sluggish response. It's sad, but this nonsense is pretty common. That's why bitching if you have the time and energy is a good thing. The squeaky wheel really does get the grease. Stop complaining and they'll start trying to cut corners. Remember - odor control is a always a low operational priority and through habituation, those folks have a much higher tolerance than you.

Funny story: When they had little events at my old plant, like some award ceremony, they liked to hold it in the impressive looking roundhouse/lobby of our control building, which was dominated by a huge pit where 4 massive RAS ( Return Activated Sludge ) pumps were sited. The administration/main lab building was a separate facility. So they'd set up a buffet table. And being cheap, they never got enough food. All the admin and support types ( engineers, secretaries, etc. ) would get there at once and gobble all the food while the operators straggled in in ones and twos from their various stations ( which couldn't be left completely unattended because it's a 24-hour operation )to find all the good stuff gone. So some of the guys got the bright idea to bleed one of the out-of-service RAS pumps. The septic sludge from the line stank to high heaven and the support types fled outdoors. The operators and maintainence, used to far worse, casually strolled by and picked over the buffet tables in peace :D .

- Tamerlane

Tranquilis
06-09-2001, 09:12 AM
Originally posted by Tamerlane
... In concentrations low enough to smell, it's harmless, if unpleasant.

It's a danger in treatment plants because it's heavier than air and will sink into confined areas and accumulate.
Everything you never wanted to know about waste water treatment... :)
Good info!

The vB code for lower small is "sub" & "/sub" in brackets, the code for upper small is "sup" & "/sup" in brackets.

Tamerlane
06-09-2001, 11:37 AM
Thanks Tranquilis :) . I'll get the hang of this dang board, yet ;) ! And just to test...

Another charming property of H2S is that it is quite flammable in high concentrations :D .

- Tamerlane