A new proposal by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) would amend the Clean Water Act to allow partially untreated human waste to be dumped into the country's waterways along with treated sewage -- a process called "blending." One Tufts public health expert says that if approved, the measure could endanger the population and turn back decades of environmental progress.
"Congress is about to vote on a measure that would block EPA from allowing sewage blending. We should remind our elected officials that we want less, not more, sewage in the water," Tufts public health professor Jeffrey K. Griffiths wrote in an op-ed published in The Boston Globe.
Griffiths, an associate professor of public health and family medicine at Tufts University School of Medicine, is a member of the EPA's National Drinking Water Advisory Council and Science Advisory Board.
He wrote in the op-ed that current procedure mandates sewage to be treated twice -- "by settling out solid materials, and then through a biological process that kills pathogens." Under the new proposal, the biological treatment would not be required as stringently.
"Both treatments are necessary to kill the full spectrum of viruses, bacteria, and parasites in sewage. Both are needed to minimize the risks to people downstream, and both are required by law," he explained.
If blending is allowed, said Griffiths, people could be at risk.
"Clear, scientifically credible information shows that blending sewage lets enough of these germs into our water so that the risks are increased," he wrote in the Globe. "These pathogens can infect all of us, but are of particular concern to children, the elderly and people with compromised immune systems."
Blending could also be detrimental to the shellfish industry, according to Griffiths who directs the Global Health division at the school.
"Sewage blending will increase shellfish bed closings, drive shellfish growers out of business, and increase the health risks to the population from eating shellfish," he wrote in the column.
The proposal, said Griffiths, is a shortcut -- not an answer -- to solving problems associated with sewage treatment.
"The EPA's 'solution' effectively legalizes the problem and undermines three decades of progress in cleaning up lakes, rivers and coastal waters," he contended.
Griffiths wrote in the Globe that proponents of sewage "blending" often favor the method to cut costs -- an argument the Tufts expert calls "short-sighted and not persuasive."
"While I sympathize with these towns regarding finances, these infrastructure challenges should not be met by weakening public health protections," he wrote.
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