Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Waste Water Concerns

A lot has been said of safe waste water disposal and recently I have seen more items in which annoying organics have slipped through and affected fish populations. The reality is that we lack a bullet proof system.

The difficulty starts with the fact that all water treatment usually ends with a water product that is dumped back into the environment improved but not necessarily truly purified. My question is whether we can do something that is cost effective and actually may solve the problem.

The biggest single such problem is actually agricultural. The advent of the use of soluble chemicals on our fields over the past century has loaded our hydraulic system with these nutrients and these have over loaded specific environments causing the like of enlarged dead zones in the ocean.

The only viable solution to that problem is the advent of producing and adding biochar to soils. The free carbon sharply reduces application of nutrients and actually retains those in place. I suspect that this will emerge as a complete solution.

Then we turn to the municipal waste stream. Eliminating particulates is fairly easy, but eliminating solubles is quite another trick altogether. We now get reports on the deleterious effects of estrogens and other trace compounds affecting the receiving eco logy. In short, we do only a middling job before we send a concentrated stream of such solutes downstream.

I personally think that the best promise comes from cattail paddies. It is no trick to divert the treated sewage outflow through a large paddy and to allow enough dwell time for the water to seep through the root system. It can even be set up in strips through which the water is made to flow in a cross wise direction through the strips The only question is whether or not the plants will in fact absorb a wide range of soluables. Most important is that the cattails provide enough ready capacity to make it practical if it happens to work.

This is all new research. The industrial applications themselves are potentially endless.

One of my favorites happens to be the Alberta oil sands. There they use process water several times and then place if forever in a retaining pond. At least they did that twenty years ago. It is sufficiently saline or whatever, that it cannot be sent down the Mackenzie drainage to the Arctic Ocean. If cattails could filter out the solubles then the problem gets solved. And yes I confirmed that they grow even there.

The good thing about cattails is that most of the biomass is soluble starch which can be easily separated and converted into ethanol. The remainder can then be processed as a cellulose feedstock and this will again separate out most of the remaining organics for conversion also to ethanol. Left behind hopefully will be sludge holding most of the nasties.

So if we can so harness cattails like this, it is plausible that waste water treatment can become almost bullet proof. My sense so far is that the plants will come close without us been overly clever. Plant modification could solve the rest.

It is too bad that we cannot create a plant able to produce isolated mineral holding nodes or nodules. However solving even half the problem is better than the present.

It’s Time to Learn From Frogs

Some of the first eerie signs of a potential health catastrophe came as bizarre deformities in water animals, often in their sexual organs.

Nicholas D. Kristof

Frogs, salamanders and other amphibians began to sprout extra legs. In heavily polluted Lake Apopka, one of the largest lakes in Florida, male alligators developed stunted genitals.

In the Potomac watershed near Washington, male smallmouth bass have rapidly transformed into “intersex fish” that display female characteristics. This was discovered only in 2003, but
the latest survey found that more than 80 percent of the male smallmouth bass in the Potomac are producing eggs.

Now scientists are connecting the dots with evidence of increasing abnormalities among humans, particularly large increases in numbers of genital deformities among newborn boys. For example, up to 7 percent of boys are now born with undescended testicles, although this often self-corrects over time. And up to 1 percent of boys in the United States are now born with hypospadias, in which the urethra exits the penis improperly, such as at the base rather than the tip.

Apprehension is growing among many scientists that the cause of all this may be a class of chemicals
called endocrine disruptors. They are very widely used in agriculture, industry and consumer products. Some also enter the water supply when estrogens in human urine — compounded when a woman is on the pill — pass through sewage systems and then through water treatment plants.

These endocrine disruptors have complex effects on the human body, particularly during fetal development of males.
“A lot of these compounds act as weak estrogen, so that’s why developing males — whether smallmouth bass or humans — tend to be more sensitive,” said Robert Lawrence, a professor of environmental health sciences at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “It’s scary, very scary.”

The scientific case is still far from proven, as chemical companies emphasize, and the uncertainties for humans are vast. But there is accumulating evidence that male sperm count is dropping and that genital abnormalities in newborn boys are increasing. Some studies show correlations between these abnormalities and mothers who have greater exposure to these chemicals during pregnancy, through everything from hair spray to the water they drink.

Endocrine disruptors also affect females. It is now well established
that DES, a synthetic estrogen given to many pregnant women from the 1930s to the 1970s to prevent miscarriages, caused abnormalities in the children. They seemed fine at birth, but girls born to those women have been more likely to develop misshaped sexual organs and cancer.

There is also some evidence from both humans and monkeys that endometriosis, a gynecological disorder, is linked to exposure to endocrine disruptors. Researchers also suspect that the disruptors can cause early puberty in girls.

A rush of new research has also tied endocrine disruptors to obesity, insulin resistance and diabetes, in both animals and humans. For example, mice exposed in utero even to low doses of endocrine disruptors appear normal at first but develop excess abdominal body fat as adults.

Among some scientists, there is real apprehension at the new findings — nothing is more terrifying than reading The Journal of Pediatric Urology — but there hasn’t been much public notice or government action.

This month, the Endocrine Society, an organization of scientists specializing in this field, issued a landmark 50-page statement. It should be a wake-up call.

“We present the evidence that endocrine disruptors have effects on male and female reproduction, breast development and cancer, prostate cancer, neuroendocrinology, thyroid, metabolism and obesity, and cardiovascular endocrinology,”
the society declared.

“The rise in the incidence in obesity,” it added, “matches the rise in the use and distribution of industrial chemicals that may be playing a role in generation of obesity.”

The Environmental Protection Agency
is moving toward screening endocrine disrupting chemicals, but at a glacial pace. For now, these chemicals continue to be widely used in agricultural pesticides and industrial compounds. Everybody is exposed.

“We should be concerned,” said Dr. Ted Schettler of
the Science and Environmental Health Network. “This can influence brain development, sperm counts or susceptibility to cancer, even where the animal at birth seems perfectly normal.”

The most notorious example of water pollution occurred in 1969, when
the Cuyahoga River in Ohio caught fire and helped shock America into adopting the Clean Water Act. Since then, complacency has taken hold.

Those deformed frogs and intersex fish — not to mention the growing number of deformities in newborn boys — should jolt us once again.

3 comments:

Doug said...

Thank you for all your informative posts. In my gray years, I hope to help utilize plants to clean our water and air. One project of particular interest is the use of solar power to run pumps and condensers, allowing farmers in dry areas to collect and disseminate irrigation water.
Also, your posts on Peggy Korth and her work on cattails is especially valuable. Too many view these workhorse plants as aquatic weeds to be got rid of.
Doug

arclein said...

That strikes me as eminently practical with cheap solar about to hit the maqrket making the operating of even clumsy solutions just fine.

operating a condenser may also work in some cases, though an optimised eden machine is where I want to go.

Our present solutions are inherantly costly but then there are plenty of present situations that will respond to that application. There is no real need to do without.

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