Homeowners pollute our water the worst
by Jo Ellen Myers Sharp
Tips to protect your community's water quality
• Sweep the driveway and sidewalk rather than spraying them off with water from a hose.
• Never pour anything, especially waste oil or leftover lawn chemicals, into a storm drain.
• Use absorbent material, such as kitty litter, to clean up grease, brake fluid, antifreeze or other chemical spills.
• Minimize the need for pesticides by selecting the right plant for the right place. Native plant species usually work best.
• Inspect your home's sewer connection or septic system annually and make any necessary repairs.
Most of us are familiar with the headline-grabbing, water-polluting spills from industries, such as wastewater treatment plants, hog farms or chemical manufacturers. When these operations spill pollutants into the water, we know their origin or source point. But everyday, millions of consumers go unnoticed as they contribute to water pollution by allowing fertilizers, pesticides and other chemicals to enter drains or by failing to properly maintain their home's sewer lines or septic systems.
This type of runoff is called nonpoint source pollution, or NPS, because it doesn't originate from a single place. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says this NPS is the nation's leading source of water quality degradation because of its cumulative effect. Although individual homes might contribute only minor amounts of contaminants or pollutants, the combined effect of an entire neighborhood can be serious.
"People can't see water underground or its route to a stream, river or lake," say Christine Davis, a pollution specialist with the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency.
"They don't realize by letting lawn fertilizer fall onto the pavement and washing it off with a hose, nitrogen and other chemicals in the runoff feed algae, overwhelming streams and killing fish and plant life."
There are different rules for consumers than for business and industry, too. "A chemical that's legal for a consumer to throw away is treated as a hazardous waste material for a business or industry," says Kristin Brier of the Indiana Department of Environmental Management's Office of Pollution Prevention.
Improperly maintained septic systems can also contaminate ground and surface water by introducing foreign nutrients and pathogens. Properties not connected to a sanitary sewer usually use a septic system. Sewage flows into a septic tank, where eventually it leaches through the soil and into the water table. Consumers need to take the same precautions to prevent chemicals and pollution from getting into septic systems just as they would with a sewer drain.
Homeowners should correctly identify a landscape problem before attempting to fix it with a chemical treatment. For instance, it's a waste of money and an unnecessary use of a chemical trying to treat a fungus problem with an insecticide.
If you wash your car at home, do so over the lawn rather than a hard surface. Use a bucket to hold the washing liquid, and use the hose only to rinse. Install a shutoff nozzle at the end of the hose. The best way to protect the environment always involves money-saving practices that limit runoff and make sure what runoff there is stays clean.
Most communities have special days set aside when people can take their hazardous wastes to collection centers for appropriate disposal. These include paints, lawn and garden products, chemicals, mercury thermometers and car batteries. To find out about toxic waste collection days and sites, contact your county or state health department.
Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp, freelance writer, author, speaker and photographer, is an Advanced Master Gardener and a regional director of the Garden Writers Association. A self-proclaimed trial-and-error gardener, she also enjoys spending time with her dog, Penn, and cat, Cowgirl.