Things that make you go eww

 Are you familiar with the “applause-o-meter”? I recently tried to introduce the concept to a group of grade school aged children, with only limited success. They had been so well trained to raise their hands that most of them continued to wave their arms in the air even as I yelled, “Clap for the winner. A waving hand makes no noise!”  Although the applause-o-meter has traditionally been used for talent shows and other similar contests, I think it could have other useful applications as well. Imagine how much more interesting the typical board room meeting would be if people used an applause-o-meter instead of Robert’s Rules of Order.

As long as we’re being unconventional, we could also use this strategy to vote for things that make you go eww, like dirty diapers, moldy leftovers and failing septic systems. If you don’t recognize the word eww, please refer to the Urban Dictionary (www.urbandictionary.com), which defines the term this way, “gross, something you did not want to see, hear, feel, taste, or smell.” It’s hard to say which of the three would win the applause-o-meter, but my vote’s going to the septic systems. 

Individual sewage treatment systems, more commonly called septic systems, are common in rural areas throughout the east metro. When they are properly installed and are inspected and pumped out regularly, these systems treat household wastewater effectively and economically. Sometimes, however, septic systems fail. In the worst-case scenario, a system backs up, pushing raw sewage into the yard or basement. I’ve seen it happen and it’s definitely not pretty. Other times, the damage remains hidden. Older septic systems can leak and when they do, untreated wastewater often finds its way into nearby lakes and streams and even shallow groundwater aquifers. Swimming in toilet water definitely makes me think eww.

A recent report from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency found that individual sewage treatment systems are an even bigger source of phosphorus pollution in our lakes and rivers than manure from animal feedlots. Along with phosphorus, household wastewater can contain disease-causing bacteria and viruses, pharmaceutical drugs, household cleaners and other nasties that people flush or wash down the drain. Do I hear the applause-o-meter rumbling?           

For a septic system to continue functioning, the scum and sludge need to be pumped out regularly. In Washington County, homeowners are required to pump their septic tanks at least every three years unless an inspection shows that pumping is not yet necessary. Homeowners can extend the life of their septic systems by limiting water use inside the house and keeping rubbish out of the toilets. Leaky toilets can waste as much as 200 gallons of water a day, and leaky sinks are a problem too. Replacing old fixtures with high-efficiency toilets, showerheads and washing machines can save water and help to avoid a septic failure. Things to keep out of the toilet include dental floss, feminine hygiene products, condoms, diapers, cotton swabs, cigarette butts, coffee grounds, cat litter and paper towels, household chemicals, gasoline, oil, pesticides, antifreeze, and paint, all of which can clog a septic systems or destroy the biological treatment taking place. A clogged septic system will definitely make you go eww.

Even outside the house, good septic systems can go bad. Two common culprits include vehicles parked on top of the drainfield, which can compact the soil and damage the pipes and tank, and excess water from roof drains, basement sump pumps and other drainage systems. When the drainfield floods, processes inside the system come to a halt and plumbing fixtures will often back up. Oh help! The applause is almost deafening now.

To recap, septic systems need to be inspected and pumped every three years and replaced periodically, otherwise they can leak sewage into drinking water supplies and nearby lakes and rivers or overflow into your backyard and basement like a toilet in reverse. If that doesn’t win the applause-o-meter for eww, I don’t know what will. 

For a list of ISTS contractors working in Washington County visit www.co.washington.mn.us/info_for_residents/environment/septic. To request an inspection, contact the Washington County Department of Public Health and Environment at 651-430-6655. Rural property owners with more than five acres can qualify for low interest loans through the Department of Agriculture to replace failing septic systems. For more information on these loans, contact Pete Young at the Washington Conservation District at 651-275-1136 or peter.young@mnwcd.org.