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Impact of septic systems

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02/02/2017 - State environmental regulators estimate there are about 1.3 million on-site wastewater, or septic, systems operating in the state of Michigan, with 10 percent or more of those failing to work properly. In total, the state estimates about 31 million gallons of wastewater from toilets and drains not being treated properly are affecting our waterways and groundwater.

With some 80,000 or more septic systems in the ground in Oakland County, one could estimate about 8,000 of those are failing to adequately treat the raw sewage coming from toilets and drains. Yet, because of a lack of any statewide or local requirement to routinely inspect and inventory the systems, the exact number, location and condition of underground septic systems are unknown.

"In general, a failing septic can affect surface water quality and groundwater quality, as well as the physical quality of having sewage on the ground if you're not near a lake or stream," said Mark Hansell, chief environmental health of the Oakland County Health Division. "Sewage is known to carry many viruses and health hazards that require corrective action. It may also impact areas on drinking water wells."

Beyond the obvious signs of a failing septic system, such as a backup of sewage into a home or the presence and odor of human waste, failing septics can lead to numerous health and environmental hazards.

Sewage from failing septics may taint drinking water wells, aquifers and other drinking water sources, leading to dysentery, meningitis, hepatitis, typhoid fever, and other illnesses. Nitrates from failing septics pose particular threats to infants, such as methemoglobinemia, or "blue baby" syndrome, which interferes with the blood's ability to carry oxygen.

Failing septics also are one of the most frequently reported causes of groundwater contamination. Failing septics may also result in beach closings caused by high levels of E.coli; excessive algae and aquatic plant growth; fish consumption restrictions; and bacterial and viral infections from contact with contaminated recreational waterways.

In Oakland County, Hansell said there are at least 80,000, and possibly as many as 100,000 septic systems in operation, many of which are in the northern and west sections of the county, including some homes in Bloomfield Township and the Rochester/Rochester Hills area, that lack sewer connections. Exactly how many of those systems are failing is not known.

Annually, the health division conducts about 130 inspections that are based on complaints, mostly from residents bothered by the smell of raw sewage. Those inspections typically include water or wells for high levels of bacteria nutrients, or adding a dye to the system to see if water from the system surfaces.

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