In a recent episode of "Man vs. Wild," survival expert Bear Grylls pees in his canteen and promptly drinks the warm liquid, cringing as he does every week at doing something gross, this time in order to survive being dropped in the middle of the scorching Australian Outback for our viewing pleasure.
Apparently, as long as you don't let it sit around too long and allow bacteria to fester, your pee is perfectly sterile and, importantly, made mostly of water.
But mix the pee with your neighbors poo and all the other effluent of a sewage system, and the thought of drinking the treated end product makes most of us squirm even more than a contrived scene in a reality show.
However, with water supplies tightening around the country due to growing populations and drought, many communities are considering tapping their sewage treatment plants as a new source of drinking water.
In the Jan. 28 issue of Chemical & Engineering News, a publication of the American Chemical Society, Associate Editor Jyllian Kemsley writes: "Water utilities are scrambling to find new ways to meet the demand for one of life’s essentials."
U.S. scientists have warned that parts of the country will soon need to find new sources of drinking water. The United Nations calls thirst a growing global crisis. Desalination, while it works, remains too expensive to be practical for most areas.
Reclaimed wastewater has long been returned to the environment or used for irrigation.
In the Southwest, where water has always been scarce, elaborate systems are already in place to reclaim wastewater. The master-planned community of Anthem, at the edge of Phoenix, uses treated wastewater to irrigate two golf courses and acres upon acres of parks. But drinking water for the roughly 25,000 residents still comes from the Colorado River.
And as an example of the rising costs of water and all its attendant schemes, Anthem residents are currently facing up to a 50 percent increase in water rates this year and more in coming years to pay for the reclamation facility. Residents are up in arms over the unexpected rate hike and what they see as a lack of disclosure on the part of the builder and the local water company about the plant's true costs.
Already drinking it
Elsewhere, treated wastewater is already finding its way into water glasses.
Recycled water flows into a stream that feeds Virginia's Occoquan Reservoir, Kemsley notes. "In Los Angeles, treated wastewater is added to the Montebello Forebay, where it percolates through the soil to replenish the groundwater supply. Also in California, the Orange County Water District’s (OCWD’s) Water Factory 21 facility reclaims wastewater that is then injected into aquifers to provide a pressurized barrier against seawater intrusion into groundwater."
Earlier this month, California approved operation of the Advanced Water Purification Facility (AWPF), the largest water reclamation plant in the nation. It will produce 70 million gallons a day of drinkable water from sewage — supplying about 10 percent of the water needed for the district's 2.3 million residents.
Kemsley explains how the facility reduces levels of organic chemicals, pathogens and pharmaceuticals:
- Big stuff like tree limbs are removed.
- Coffee grounds and other granulars settle out.
- Chemicals are added to encourage gunk to clump and settle out.
- Bacteria are added to break down poo.
Now it's ready for discharge into the ocean. To make it drinkable:
- Sodium hypochlorite is added to disinfect the water, which then goes through microfilters.
- The water is treated with reverse osmosis, a process used in some home-water filters, to remove dissolved contaminants.
- Finally, hydrogen peroxide is added and the water is irradiated with ultraviolet light to removed the last of the organics.
The water is as clean as and probably cleaner than standard tap water, said Mehul Patel, OCWD’s principal process engineer.
The Environmental Protection Agency is seeing greater interest in using treated wastewater to recharge aquifers, the article states. "As water supplies tighten, perhaps more communities will be asked to put their faith in chemistry and accept recycled water into their drinking supply," Kemsley writes.
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Robert is an independent health and science journalist and writer based in Phoenix, Arizona. He is a former editor-in-chief of Live Science with over 20 years of experience as a reporter and editor. He has worked on websites such as Space.com and Tom's Guide, and is a contributor on Medium, covering how we age and how to optimize the mind and body through time. He has a journalism degree from Humboldt State University in California.