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The wastewater sector must tackle contaminants

Pioneering work to monitor wastewater flows for viruses and pollution could pave the way for transformative approaches to public and environmental health in coming years. Sally Watson and Judy Anderson set out the changes they’d like to see.

By 2040, wastewater treatment is regarded by many governments as the frontline in tackling harm from contaminants to the environment, food chains and public health. Legislation and regulations have been tightened to better control plastics, inorganic chemicals and pharmaceuticals.

A joined-up approach is key

A joined-up approach is key

Collaborative frameworks have been established between the water industry, government and the health sector to monitor contaminants in the wastewater network – wastewater flows accurately indicate social and economic trends, from consumer behaviour and industrial practices, to the recreational habits and health of the population.

Contaminants have been measured to establish baselines for each wastewater services provider, catchment, region and country. This baseline data is used to spot anomalies, develop control measures and assess their effectiveness. Fast-evolving knowledge and experience are shared openly to support global efforts to mitigate the risks from pollution.

Disease control

Disease control

Wastewater monitoring has been particularly valuable in disease control: in 2020, COVID-19 was monitored in wastewater, providing early warning of increased prevalence in specific areas. Over the following years, the range of viruses and bacteria tracked has increased, allowing health authorities to respond quickly to emerging outbreaks.

Public awareness and education campaigns have reduced the disposal of medicines, toiletries and waste products into the wastewater system and aquatic environment. Across all branches of manufacturing industry, companies have dramatically reduced pollution by finding new ways to recover, reuse or safely dispose of contaminants in their waste streams.

These actions are of huge, but largely invisible, significance for public health: the cleaner aquatic environment has positive effects on air quality, biodiversity and the food chain.

The reduction in antibiotics in wastewater has slowed the rate at which harmful bacteria develop antimicrobial resistance, giving the medical profession much needed time to develop new protections against the growing threat of ‘super-bugs’.

Plastics bagged

Plastics bagged

Governments have worked with water companies and other infrastructure owners as well as academia and the private sector to cut plastics pollution.

Ever tighter regulations have cut the use of plastics in everything from cars to skincare products. Innovative adaptation of the ‘polluter pays’ principle has made organisations indirectly responsible for plastic pollution – food and drink companies, and manufacturers of wet wipes, for example – bear the cost of cleaning it up.

Supported by government investment, water companies have added new treatment processes to remove inorganic and plastic contaminants from wastewater, so preventing them from entering the environment.

      Judy Anderson, Mott MacDonald global practice leader for water

      Sally Watson, Mott MacDonald digital leader for water

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