Let’s Avoid Septic Shock
Rotten. Rancid. Infected. Putrid. Puss-filled. That’s what septic means. So it stands to reason that if septic systems designed to safely contain bacteria-laced waste begin to leak and leach, it poses serious health and environmental problems for all of us. Starkly stated, no one wants to run the risk of our land and water going septic.
That’s why Oregon Environmental Council strongly supports Senator Arnie Roblan’s decision to reintroduce legislation to reduce these risks. His 2016 bill, SB 1563, would create a loan fund to help residents and small businesses repair, upgrade and replace their septic systems. These actions would help protect our health and safeguard our environment.
It’s estimated that 30% of all Oregonians – more than 1.2 million people – depend on septic tanks to treat their wastewater and prevent widespread environmental pollution that would adversely affect both their families and neighbors. Many of these systems are nearly 50 years old and in need of attention. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 10% to 25% of all septic tanks are failing, and there’s no reason to believe that things are any different in Oregon. But repairs can cost more than $20,000 (and upgrades and replacement even more). Many Oregonians simply can’t afford this expense, especially when it’s unlikely to be recouped in the sale of their house.
But the health implications are real. When septic systems fail, they can expose us not only to disease-causing bacteria from our excrement, but also viruses and such harmful contaminants as nitrate, phosphorus, and dissolved metals, detergents and solvents from our everyday cleaning products.
Fecal bacteria contamination can cause diarrhea and vomiting, and certain strains of E. coli bacteria can be deadly, especially for children. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reported that “Septic systems are an under-recognized cause of disease outbreaks.”
Nitrate pollution has been linked to birth defects, stomach and bladder cancer, miscarriages and recurrent respiratory infections. Oregon is no stranger to high nitrate levels. Our Department of Environmental Quality has designated three regions within the state – South Willamette Valley, Lower Umatilla Basin and North Malheur County – as special areas of concern due to high nitrate levels, citing fertilizer and manure runoff and leaky septic tanks as the primary sources of the problem. But septic tank failures can happen anywhere, including in coastal communities like Coos Bay, where Senator Roblan lives. Along the coast, failing septic systems pose risks not only to human health, but also marine organisms.
In addition to the well-documented health risks associated with septic system contaminants, health professionals are also concerned about the pharmaceuticals and hormones that leave our bodies and can contaminate local waters when septic systems fail.
Improved health, cleaner water, and a safer, more resilient environment, paid for through a self-supporting system, are worthy goals meriting broad public support. Senate Bill 1563 would help Oregon remain a special place both for those who are privileged to live here and the increasing number of people who are eager to call Oregon their home.