16.2.1 Domestic Sewage and Industrial Effluents

As we work with water in our homes in the cities and towns, we wash everything into drains. Have you ever wondered where the sewage that comes out our houses go? What happens in villages? Is the sewage treated before being transported to the nearest river and mixed with it? A mere 0.1 per cent impurities make domestic sewage unfit for human use.

You have read about sewage treatments plants in Chapter 10. Solids are relatively easy to remove, what is difficult to remove are dissolved salts such as nitrates, phosphates, and other nutrients, and toxic metal ions and organic compounds.

Domestic sewage primarily contains biodegradable organic matter, which readily decomposes – thanks to bacteria and other micro-organisms, which can multiply using these organic substances as substrates and hence utilise some of the components of sewage. It is possible to estimate the amount of organic matter in sewage water by measuring Biochemical Oxygen Demand (BOD).

Can you explain how? In the chapter on micro-organisms you have read about the relation between BOD, micro-organisms and the amount of biodegradable matter.

Micro-organisms involved in biodegradation of organic matter in the receiving water body consume a lot of oxygen, and as a result there is a sharp decline in dissolved oxygen downstream from the point of sewage discharge. This causes mortality of fish and other aquatic creatures.

Presence of large amounts of nutrients in waters also causes excessive growth of planktonic (free-floating) algae, called an algal bloom (Figure 16.4) which imparts a distinct colour to the water bodies. Algal blooms cause deterioration of the water quality and fish mortality. Some bloom-forming algae are extremely toxic to human beings and animals.

You may have seen the beautiful mauve-colored flowers found on very appealingly-shaped floating plants in water bodies. These plants which were introduced into India for their lovely flowers have caused havoc by their excessive growth by causing blocks in our waterways.

They grow faster than our ability to remove them. These are plants of water hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes), the world’s most problematic aquatic weed, also called ‘Terror of Bengal’. They grow abundantly in eutrophic water bodies, and lead to an imbalance in the ecosystem dynamics of the water body.

Sewage from our homes as well from hospitals are likely to contain many undesirable pathogenic microorganisms, and its disposal into a water without proper treatment may cause outbreak of serious diseases, such as, dysentery, typhoid, jaundice, cholera, etc. Unlike domestic sewage, waste water from industries like petroleum, paper manufacturing, metal extraction and processing, chemical manufacturing, etc., often contain toxic substances, notably, heavy metals (defined as elements with density > 5 g/cm3 such as mercury, cadmium, copper, lead, etc.) and a variety of organic compounds.

A few toxic substances, often present in industrial waste waters, can undergo biological magnification (Biomagnification) in the aquatic food chain. Biomagnification refers to increase in concentration of the toxicant at successive trophic levels.

This happens because a toxic substance accumulated by an organism cannot be metabolised or excreted, and is thus passed on to the next higher trophic level. This phenomenon is well-known for mercury and DDT. Figure 16.5 shows biomagnification of DDT in an aquatic food chain.

In this manner, the concentration of DDT is increased at successive trophic levels; say if it starts at 0.003 ppb (ppb = parts per billion) in water, it can ultimately can reach 25 ppm (ppm = parts per million) in fish-eating birds, through biomagnification. High concentrations of DDT disturb calcium metabolism in birds, which causes thinning of eggshell and their premature breaking, eventually causing decline in bird populations.

Eutrophication is the natural aging of a lake by biological enrichment of its water. In a young lake the water is cold and clear, supporting little life. With time, streams draining into the lake introduce nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus, which encourage the growth of aquatic organisms.

As the lake’s fertility increases, plant and animal life burgeons, and organic remains begin to be deposited on the lake bottom. Over the centuries, as silt and organic debris pile up, the lake grows shallower and warmer, with warm-water organisms supplanting those that thrive in a cold environment. Marsh plants take root in the shallows and begin to fill in the original lake basin.

Eventually, the lake gives way to large masses of floating plants (bog), finally converting into land. Depending on climate, size of the lake and other factors, the natural aging of a lake may span thousands of years.

However, pollutants from man’s activities like effluents from the industries and homes can radically accelerate the aging process. This phenomenon has been called Cultural or Accelerated Eutrophication. During the past century, lakes in many parts of the earth have been severely eutrophied by sewage and agricultural and industrial wastes. The prime contaminants are nitrates and phosphates, which act as plant nutrients.

They overstimulate the growth of algae, causing unsightly scum and unpleasant odors, and robbing the water of dissolved oxygen vital to other aquatic life. At the same time, other pollutants flowing into a lake may poison whole populations of fish, whose decomposing remains further deplete the water’s dissolved oxygen content. In such fashion, a lake can literally choke to death.

Heated (thermal) wastewaters flowing out of electricity-generating units, e.g., thermal power plants, constitute another important category of pollutants. Thermal wastewater eliminates or reduces the number of organisms sensitive to high temperature, and may enhance the growth of plants and fish in extremely cold areas but, only after causing damage to the indigenous flora and fauna.

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