The Environmental Impact of Septic Systems: What You Need to Know

As a homeowner with a septic system, it’s important to understand the potential environmental impact of your wastewater treatment setup. At First Call Septic, we specialize in septic system inspections, septic tank pumping, septic system cleaning, and septic repairs to help keep your system functioning properly and minimize negative effects on the environment. In this article, we’ll take an in-depth look at how septic systems can impact groundwater, surface water, soil health, and more.

How Do Septic Systems Work?

Before diving into the environmental impact, let’s review how septic systems process wastewater:

  1. Wastewater from your home (toilets, showers, sinks, etc.) flows into the septic tank
  2. In the tank, heavy solids settle to the bottom forming sludge, while oils and grease float to the top as scum
  3. Liquid effluent in the middle flows out to the drainfield
  4. The drainfield’s perforated pipes allow effluent to gradually seep into the soil
  5. Natural filtration and bacteria in the soil treat the wastewater before it reaches groundwater

When septic systems are properly designed, installed, and maintained, they effectively treat wastewater and have minimal environmental impact. However, neglected or failing systems can lead to serious issues.

Groundwater and Drinking Water Contamination

One of the biggest environmental concerns with septic systems is potential contamination of groundwater, which is often a source of drinking water. If a septic system is not treating wastewater adequately before it reaches the water table, it can introduce harmful pollutants:

  • Nitrates from human waste can cause methemoglobinemia (“blue baby syndrome”)
  • Bacteria like E. coli can lead to gastrointestinal illnesses
  • Viruses such as hepatitis can spread through groundwater
  • Household chemicals can make well water unsafe to drink

Routine septic tank pumping and inspections are crucial for catching issues before they lead to groundwater pollution. The EPA recommends pumping every 3-5 years for a 3 bedroom home with a 1,000 gallon tank.

Surface Water Pollution

Just as failing septic systems can contaminate groundwater, they can also pollute nearby surface waters like rivers, lakes, and coastal areas. Common pollutants include:

  • Excess nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen, which contribute to harmful algal blooms
  • Bacteria and pathogens that make water unsafe for recreation
  • Household chemicals, pharmaceuticals and personal care products

These pollutants can disrupt aquatic ecosystems, lead to fish die-offs, and make water unsuitable for fishing, swimming, and other uses. Regular septic system maintenance and proper design (adequate distance from surface waters) are key for preventing these issues.

Soil Contamination and Drainfield Failure

The soil in your drainfield is a crucial component of your septic system, as it provides the final treatment for wastewater before it reaches groundwater. However, neglected septic systems can contaminate and clog soil, leading to drainfield failure:

  • Sludge and scum can overflow from the tank into the drainfield
  • Fats, oils and grease can congeal and clog soil pores
  • Physical damage from vehicles, livestock or construction can compact soil
  • Excessive water usage can oversaturate the drainfield

Contaminated soil loses its ability to properly filter wastewater, while clogged soil can cause effluent to pool on the surface, creating a health hazard and foul odors. If you notice lush vegetation, standing water, or odors near your drainfield, call a professional for septic system repairs right away.

Protecting the Environment Starts With Proper Maintenance

At First Call Septic, we know that protecting the environment starts with proper septic system maintenance. Our team has over 20 years of experience providing quality septic services to homeowners in Clark, Skamania, and Cowlitz counties.

Some steps you can take to minimize your septic system’s environmental impact include:

  • Scheduling routine pumping and inspections
  • Being mindful of water usage and spreading out laundry/dishwasher loads
  • Avoiding harsh chemical drain cleaners and antibacterial soaps
  • Never flushing trash, wipes, or FOG (fats, oils, grease)
  • Promptly repairing leaks and replacing failing system components

By taking a proactive approach to septic system maintenance, you can do your part to protect groundwater, surface water, and soil health. If you have any questions or concerns about your system’s performance or environmental impact, don’t hesitate to contact us for expert advice and service. Together, we can keep septic systems functioning properly and our environment clean for generations to come.

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