Factors affecting the performance and risks to human health of on-site wastewater treatment systems

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Aerobic wastewater treatment systems (aerobic systems) are the preferred choice in a region overlying a karstic aquifer used for drinking water supplies, as they are thought to provide better protection to groundwater and human health than standard septic systems. However, aerobic systems in operation do not always perform to design standard; while this is often blamed on lack of maintenance, few studies have investigated the link directly. This study investigates the performance of domestic on-site wastewater treatment systems in South Australia, and compares effluent quality to maintenance records. Effluent from 29 septic tanks and 31 aerobic systems was analysed for nutrients, physico-chemical parameters and microbiological indicators. Aerobic systems generally provided greater treatment than septic tanks, yet most aerobic systems did not meet regulatory guidelines with high levels of indicator bacteria in 71% of samples. The effect of system size, number of household occupants and maintenance on aerobic system treatment performance was analysed: chlorine levels were positively correlated with time of last service, and nutrient concentrations were positively correlated with the number of occupants. A microbial risk assessment revealed the observed irrigation practices to be high risk; and sufficient residence time in the aquifer cannot be guaranteed for protection of groundwater used for drinking. Additional preventive measures such as irrigation management or post treatment of drinking water supply (such as UV disinfection) are required to meet public health targets.

Keywords: aerobic wastewater treatment system, groundwater protection, Mount Gambier, septic tank, treatment performance

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