Is Reclaimed Water Safe To Drink?

Recently a study was done by a National Research Council committee on the subject of recycled wastewater.  Funded by the American Waterworks Association Research Foundation, the County Sanitation Districts of Los Angeles County, the Phoenix Water Services Department, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Water Environment Research Foundation, and the National Water Research Institute, the study tested water from a number of different locations to see if recycled wastewater is safe to drink.  Although generally costing more than treated groundwater because of additional treatment, recycled wastewater is presented as a viable option for many states such as California struggling with severe drought and water supply problems.

Health and safety concerns are at the top of the list of concerns about recycled wastewater.  The study, Issues in Potable Water Reuse, concluded that “reclaimed wastewater can be used to supplement drinking water sources, but only as a last resort and after a thorough health and safety evaluation.”  Many of the study’s authors were concerned that wastewater “may contain sources of contamination that cannot be determined through current testing or treatment processes.”

The process of recycling wastewater is long and meticulous.  For Orange County in California, “Recycling starts with sewage treatment by the Orange County Sanitation District, which removes solid waste and uses micro organisms to break down organic materials. The water then heads to the recycling facility for purification. It passes at low pressure through an ultrafine filter that strains out particulate matter, bacteria, and the single-celled organisms known as protozoans (amoebas and their kin). Next comes reverse osmosis, in which the water is forced through a plastic membrane at high pressure to remove even tinier pollutants including viruses, salts, and pesticides. Treatment with hydrogen peroxide and ultraviolet light completes the process.”  Half of the water is then injected into an underground supply of freshwater that serves as a barrier between salty sea water and inland freshwater reserves while the other half is pumped into a “recharge basin in Anaheim, where it slowly percolates down into the ground to supplement the aquifer that provides drinking water to the community.”

Recycled wastewater in Orange Country exceeds every safety regulation and test for potable, that is, drinkable water.  “Water district officials note that first-timers were often pleasantly surprised by the pure, clean taste.”  In addition, since California has been using recycled wastewater there has been no illnesses or outbreaks of any kind associated with contaminated water.  The biggest factor in recycled wastewater is the public’s negative view towards the idea of drinking “toilet to tap” water as opponents have aptly named it.  Although recycled wastewater has been proven safe to drink, it will probably be some time before it gains acceptance due to the basic “yuck factor” of the water’s origin.