Water: Problems in Our Sewage System

霈軒 (Owen)
4 min readJun 14, 2022


Did you know that the Cloaca Maxima was one of the first-ever found sewage systems in the Ancient Roman times around 2,500 years ago? The Cloaca Maxima’s main purpose was to drain the marshes, remove waste from the city, and bring effluent to the River Tiber [1] so that it could help minimize the hygiene issues that were persistent during that time (i.e. reduce the number of mosquitos). Although innovative for its time, the Cloaca Maxima’s system did present flaws due to its open system concept which allowed pollutants to enter the irrigation and tap water streams, nevertheless, it still brought an extremely high value not only to Rome but to other nations that duplicated their system as well.

Rome’s Cloaca Maxima (Photo Credit: The History Blog)

Contaminants of Emerging Concern

Although we have come a long way from the Ancient Romans, the sewage we produce nowadays is much more complex. Everything we use (detergents, clothes, plastics, etc.) and consume (food, drugs, etc.) in our daily lives will likely get into our sewage system eventually. Although the sewage systems can eliminate waste (paper towels, feces, drugs, and other nutrients) from the public, the sewage cannot be fully cleaned with our current wastewater methods. Among some of the pollutants discovered are:

  • Drugs (i.e. Acetaminophen, cocaine, etc.)
  • Antibiotics
  • Steroids
  • Hormones (Birth control devices flushed down the toilet)
  • Microplastics (i.e. Polyester, Polyethylene terephthalate, etc.)

Although more research is needed, it is widely acknowledged that these emerging pollutants are increasingly becoming a hazard to our environment and even public health [2].

According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), these emerging pollutants are widely presented in our Nation’s water bodies and have a detrimental effect on aquatic species. It has been proven that these emerging pollutants can bioaccumulate* in our food web, which can prove dangerous if consumed by humans[3]. Having learned all of this we can clearly see that innovation in the waste disposal and its management is extremely behind and in need of attention.

Water Infrastructure

Another issue identified with sewage systems is that a built infrastructure is designed to be used for 30–50 years, which means a wastewater treatment plant may be outdated when dealing with new contaminants. In order to make an impact and fulfill the goal to make water fully circulate, we have to be more innovative in how we treat water, especially when the cost in the wastewater treatment process is a detractor [4].

The biggest challenge for water infrastructure in the United States is the aging infrastructure including treatment plants and pipes. According to the American Water Works Association (AWWA), it is estimated that there are around 240,000 water main breaks annually in the United States, and the cost would reach up to USD$1 trillion if we are to replace them all [5]. A more strategic plan is needed not only in the U.S. to address the looming water crisis.

Septic Tanks in Your Yards Are Failing

For those not familiar with septic tanks, they are underground wastewater treatment structures that are commonly used in rural areas, which constitute around 20 percent of U.S. households that rely on this type of system, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) [6]. The problem with septic systems is the increasing and intensified rains that flood the tank and spills its contents onto the backyard, rendering them ineffective. When this happens, smelly and unhealthy wastewater backs up into homes.

When Septic tanks are saturated, wastewater getting into your house is the least of your worries. Once wastewater flows with rainwater, it can spill onto nearby rivers and streams, posing threat to clean water in our ecosystems. The situation can intensify with climate changes that cause irregular and more intensified precipitation. It is estimated that 24 percent of the septic systems (around 1.37 million) in Michigan State alone are failing and contaminating groundwater [7] and although there is not a comprehensive large-scale and complex analysis of the problem, the failing septic systems will become a significant environmental impact factor.

Our Thoughts

Water is the most essential element on the planet, and no one can live without water, especially potable water. The looming water crisis however is much closer than everyone thinks even in wealthy countries like the U.S., Germany, and Netherlands. Furthermore, polluted wastewater can also significantly affect the water cycle and the entire ecosystem, and the problems shall be properly faced and solved.

We have been taking advantage of Mother Nature for over the past two centuries, and it is time for us to think about how we can be more humble to generate a harmonious way to live with her. Pursuing infinite economic growth may not be the solution to sustaining our future; instead, taking environmental factors into account can be more effective to reach the balance when making any decisions [8]. We as humans can always be more innovative and creative to come up with better ideas for tackling problems we encounter.

[1] Cloaca Maxima. Wikipedia.

[2] Emerging Pollutants in Wastewater: An Increasing Threat

[3] New Information on Familiar and Unfamiliar Chemicals That Surround Us

[4] Public spending on transportation and water infrastructure as a share of GDP in the United States from 1960 to 2017, by type

[5] Aging Water Infrastructure Issues in the United States

[6] Septic Systems Overview. EPA.

[7] Backed-Up Pipes, Stinky Yards: Climate Change is Wrecking Septic Tanks

[8] Does Economic Growth Matter?



霈軒 (Owen)

An Environmental Engineer who loves Nature and Frogs! Let’s enjoy what the Earth brings to us and secure it! // 熱愛大自然、熱愛青蛙的環境工程師 // 讓我們一起遨遊並沈浸在大自然中吧!