Microplastics in sewage: a toxic compound that poisons our land | George Monbiot

WLately woke up to an abominable thing. Rather than invest properly in new sewage treatment works, water companies in the UK – since they were privatized in 1989 – have delivered £ 72 billion in dividends to its shareholders. Our sewer system is outdated and small, and routine completely passed, because companies allow raw human excrement to be dumped directly into our rivers. They reduced some of them to stinking, almost lifeless drainage ditches.

This is what you get from years of political failure and the near-collapse monitoring and coercion by successive governments. Untreated sewage not only burdens our rivers with excess food, but it is also the most important source of the microplastics which now defile them. It contains a wide range of other toxins, including PFASs: the “eternal chemicals” that were the subject of the film. Dark Waters. This may explain the recent appearance decline in otter populations: after recovery from the organochlorine insecticides used in the 20th century, they are now affected by new contaminants.

But here’s a question hardly anyone asks: what happens when our sewer system works as intended? What happens when the dirt is filtered and the water flowing out of sewage treatment plants is no longer life-threatening? I found the answer by researching my book, Regenesis, and I’m still hesitant about it. When the system works as intended, it is likely to be just as damaging as it is overrun by unscrupulous water companies. It’s an amazing and shocking story, but it has barely been touched by the media.

We are often told that the microplastics entering the sewage system, which come from a tire panel washing the roads, the synthetic clothes we wear and many other sources, are a bad problem, almost unsolvable. But modern, well-managed sewage treatment works remove 99% of these fibers from sewage. So far, so good. But – and at this point you may want to decide whether to laugh or cry – after examining them from the water supply, the treatment companies then release them back into the wild. In the UK, from the sewage sludge screened by treatment works, 87% are sent to farms. The microplastics so carefully removed from sewage by the treatment process are then spread across the earth in the sewage sludge the water companies sell to farmers as manure.

So what happens to them? Some – perhaps most – wash off the soil and into the rivers: in other words, whether the sewage is screened or not, the microplastics it contains end up in the same place. Others accumulate in the soil.

It’s hard to decide which is worse. Experiments show how microplastics cascade through ground food webs, poisoned some of the animals who inhabit it. When they decompose into nanoparticles, they can be absorbed by soil fungi and accumulated by plants. We currently have no idea what the consequences of eating these contaminated crops may be.

Sewage sludge testing has not been updated since 1989, so there is no control for plastic particles or most other synthetic chemicals. Study commissioned but later kept secret by the government found that the sewage sludge spread in our countryside contains a remarkable cocktail of hazardous substances, including PFAS, benzo (a) pyrene (group 1 carcinogen), dioxins, furans, PCBs and PAH everyone. of which are persistent and possibly cumulative.

Where did they come from? Because our waste streams are not separated and poorly regulated, anywhere and everywhere. The most important source of PFASs in sewage is probably the construction business. “Forever chemicals”Is found in paints, sealants and coatings, caulking, adhesives and roofing materials. Evidence sent to me by an industrialist suggests that regulators around the world are turning a blind eye to the removal of liquid waste in construction sites. Tools are washed and surfaces sprayed with water, which is then poured down the drain. Without regulation, entrepreneurs have no motivation use technologies that ensure that liquid waste is contained. Why go to this expense if your competitors don’t have to?

Could this story get worse? Yes. Microplastics are sometimes to spread intentionally on the soil of farmers, to make it more friable. Across Europe, there are thousands of tons of plastic as well added to fertilizers, to prevent them from penetrating; or delay the release of the foods they contain. Fertilizer pellets are covered with plastic films – polyurethane, polystyrene, PVC, polyacrylamide and others. synthetic polymers– some of which are known to be toxic and all of which disintegrate into microplastics. It is almost unbelievable that the intentional contamination of agricultural soils with persistent and cumulative pollutants is both widespread and legal.

This practice, as well as the spread of polluted sewage sludge, must be stopped urgently before large tracts of land become unusable, and the damage to ecosystems, from land to sea, irreversible. It is tragic that the food in sewage sludge cannot be used safely, but it seems to me that there is no immediate solution, in our malfunctioning system, but to burn it. Only when toxic, accumulating chemicals are banned, waste streams separated and appropriate tests performed will sewage be safe to spread.

Right now we are poisoning the earth and probably poisoning ourselves. It could turn out to be one of the deadliest things of all. And almost no one knows.

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