|You are in: Special Report: 1998: Water Week|
Thursday, 26 March, 1998, 11:50 GMT
Fields of filth
Although it has to go somewhere, human waste is turning up in some unexpected places. One controversial method of disposal in Scotland means that raw untreated sewage can be injected into farmland within hours of it being flushed away.
BBC reporter Louise Batchelor has investigated the fears that this process could be the missing link in the food poisoning chain, leading to a recycling of the deadly E-coli 0157 that killed 20 people in Lanarkshire in 1995.
In Scotland, three quarters of all sewage sludge is currently dumped at sea and only 13% on farmland. But rural communities fear that proportion is about to rise because the European Union has banned sea dumping due to anxieties about pollution. The ban comes into force in December.
Scotland has known about the ban for several years, but with only months to go until the deadline there does not appear to be any alternative in place, except recycling sewage on land as an organic fertiliser.
Although there is a certain amount of settling and filtering before some of the water is discharged into the sea, the remaining sewage sludge is untreated.
Water authorities do not know what bugs are lurking in the sewage on any given day. Under the law the regulators, SEPA, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, is only asked to check for substances like heavy metals, nitrogen and phosphorous. It does not have to look for 'pathogens'.
The bugs or 'pathogens' are tiny organisms, some of which can cause illnesses like Hepatitis A and Salmonella.
It is feared the deadly E-coli 0157 bacterium can also be passed on in this way.
BBC Frontline Scotland collected several samples of raw sewage and waste from treatment plants and fields where sewage has been dumped. After analysis at Heriot-Watt University, experts discovered that most of the samples were contaminated with E-coli and its nastier cousin 0157, as well as Salmonella.
However, East of Scotland Water authority and sewage contractors also conducted their own independent tests on the relevant sites and their results did not show any signs of contamination.
Most healthy people are not affected by E-coli, but it is a different story for the elderly and the very young. The outbreak at Wishaw in Lanarkshire 14 months ago led to 20 deaths.
Brian Austin, Professor of Microbiology at Heriot-Watt, said he was concerned to hear raw sewage can go straight to the land.
"I would be disturbed to know that untreated sewage was just disposed of. I would certainly like to see means by which the bacteria, and preferably the viruses, were inactivated before they left the sewage works," he said.
Professor Hugh Pennington, the government advisor on E-coli, said: "E-coli 0157's natural home is in the guts of animals. It obviously gets from animal to animal and spreads that way.
"What we don't know is exactly how that happens, presumably it's through animals grazing on contaminated land, contaminated with our own manure.
"Obviously, if we're going to add further samples of manure to that field in the form of say sewage sludge we might be contributing to that problem..."
Code of practice
There is a code of practice designed to ensure that pathogens in sewage do not get into the human chain, but the legislation was drawn up before it was known that some bacteria could survive on the ground for many days.
SEPA is responsible for making sure that environmental pollution does not take place. Its Chief Executive Alan Paton has denied accusations of complacency.
"We are involved in research programmes which are trying to establish the scientific basis for action. I think it's unreasonable to expect us to take action, and costly action, because there are major implications for sewage charges, for the water authorities, for the environment as a whole," he said.
Near to the villages of Saline and Blairingone on the borders of Fife, and Perth and Kinrossis, farmland is being injected with the sewage sludge.
Local Blairingone resident Duncan Hope said: "It was pretty horrible to be living here when they were actually doing these operations, these spreading operations.
"The stench was just something else. I've lived on farms all my life. I've been involved in the cattle and the sheep and you get all sorts of farmyard smells ... but this is just totally something else."
Concerned about the smell and the possible dangers, local people have formed action groups to protest.
"We don't know whether this is causing disease or not. We're not scientists, we can't tell. But we know it includes a lot of pretty nasty bacteria ... this is being pumped on in huge quantities into various parts of the area, and it's happening all over the country.
"I don't think it's a very safe thing. If it keeps going the way it is ,they're only going to turn the country into a gigantic sewer," said Mr Hope.
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