Michigan’s estimated 140,000 compromised septic systems aren’t just a water pollution problem — they’re a threat to human health.
A new video documentary produced by Joe VanderMeulen of NatureChange.org and sponsored by FLOW, the Northern Michigan Environmental Action Council (NMEAC), Leelanau Clean Water, and the Benzie Conservation District underscores the serious health risks posed by a hidden pollution source fouling groundwater, lakes, streams and drinking water across Michigan.
Evidence is growing that on-site septic systems, used to handle and break down sewage and other household wastes in areas without public sewage treatment systems, are contributing to disease.
Michigan is the only state in the nation that lacks a statewide sanitary code requirement for periodic inspection of septic systems, meaning many are releasing wastes after years or decades without maintenance. Researchers have estimated that at least 10% of the state’s 1.4 million septic systems are failing and releasing pollutants to surface and ground waters.
“The best way to protect public health and our waters from failing septic systems is to enact a state law that makes sure all systems are periodically inspected,” says Liz Kirkwood, executive director of FLOW. “There’s no excuse for inaction in the face of growing science that these systems can make us sick.”
Dr. Mark Borchardt, a microbiologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service, says, “What we have seen in the studies we’ve done is that the greater the number of septic systems, whether they’re failing or not, the more likely it is that people become ill.” Borchardt attributes the health impacts to fecal pollution.
Michigan State University’s Dr. Joan Rose, the Homer Nowlin Chair in water research, directed a 2015 study of 64 Michigan watersheds that found a direct correlation between the number of septic systems and the presence of both E. coli and human fecal bacteria in the water B-theta. She estimates 10% to 18% of Michigan’s septic systems are compromised.
“The more the human marker in these watersheds, the more septic tanks,” Rose says. “It suggested to me that we have been underestimating the potential for on-site systems … to impact our surface waters.”
Before studies by Rose, Borchardt and others, it was assumed that soil could filter human sewage, acting as a natural treatment system. Unfortunately, if not properly placed and maintained, septic systems do not keep E. coli and other pathogens from ground and surface waters.
A 10-year inspection program report prepared by the Barry-Eaton Health District found that 27% of on-site sewage systems required some action, ranging from simple pumping to full-system replacement. Nevertheless, elected county commissioners repealed the ordinance, citing realtor complaints and property owner cost concerns.
“We don’t accept the discharge of poorly-treated human wastes from municipal sewage systems and we shouldn’t accept it from septic systems,” says Kirkwood. “It’s time for reform to clean up our drinking water and the water we enjoy for swimming and fishing.”
Click below to view a 70-second promotional video that introduces “Flushing the Future: the Challenge of Failing Septic Systems”:
View the full documentary on NatureChange.org.