One of the greatest eureka moments in human history was the discovery that many diseases were contracted by people drinking contaminated water supplies.
These horrible diseases plagued our early towns and cities and were compounded by the lack of sanitation and the fact that human activity created waste compounds that were not being correctly disposed of. Blood and waste products from animal slaughter, toxins and heavy metals produced by manufacturing processes and the faecal and food waste products from human habitation trickled through open street troughs and into the nearest river or watercourse. These same watercourses provided much of the drinking water the inhabitants who could not afford cheap ale were forced to drink.
Life expectancy was short and early childhood mortality was the norm.
Today, things are much different. Sewage and other foul water wastes are carefully directed along dedicated pipe networks to vast treatment plants. Here they are carefully treated to clean out most of the harmful components before they are allowed to enter streams, rivers and oceans.
Surface water from roofs and other surfaces are kept separate and, because of their relative cleanliness, directed straight into streams and other watercourses where they become diluted and rendered harmless.
All very notable and efficient. Or is it?
Unfortunately, too much material that should be sent into the sewage system for treatment is currently being wrongly directed into the surface water system. Although not entirely the cause of the problem, much of the blame is being placed at the door of over enthusiastic DIY operatives who incompetently plumb appliance’s wastewater discharge pipes into the wrong drain. Dishwashers, washing machines, baths and sinks, even toilets can inadvertently have their waste flushed into the wrong pipe.
This rise in DIY activity is believed to be one of the contributing factors. The proliferation of daytime TV DIY and house renovation programmes seems to have spurred an increase in inexperienced householders keen to save money by carrying out their own installations and home improvement work. This, coupled with the recession, which has deterred people from moving house and motivated them to alternatively embark on home improvement projects instead, has compounded the problem.
Today, the ease at which DIY appliances, fittings and other components and tools can be sourced, and the relatively cheap price of these items, has made DIY a leisure activity for many.
The recession has also meant that affording the services of qualified trades people has become increasingly beyond the financial means of many householders.
As a result, more and more effluent and other toxic substances are finding their way into the wrong drains and subsequently directly into the natural water systems.
DEFRA predicts that by 2017, over half a million properties in the UK will have misconnected and technically illegal drainage connections installed. Currently, in some areas, one in five households is known to have incorrectly plumbed drainage systems.
The damage caused to the environment is substantial. The decomposing material in rivers and seas removes oxygen from the water. This suffocates fish and encourages eutrophication, or the proliferation of algae, which forms dense blankets on water surfaces cutting out sunlight. Salmon, perch, pike and trout all succumb to this unnatural imbalance created by the disruption of normal environmental processes.
Toxic chemicals can cause undesirable mutations in wildlife. The endocrine disrupters released from contraceptive pills and flushed directly into clean watercourses can cause gender alterations in fish and other aquatic life.
However, not all problems are caused by hapless DIY operatives.
Too often toxic materials are deliberately discarded into drains, particularly street drains. Oil, antifreeze, and other motoring products are often flushed directly into them by inconsiderate vehicle owners.
The increase in the construction of external hardcover surfaces prevents natural drainage and following a rain downpour, water, and the debris collected on these surface gushes into storm drains, causing considerable pollution.
Not only is a polluted water course unattractive, the smell of decomposing organic material coupled with the myriad of unexpected chemical reactions that may occur can be quite unpleasant for neighbouring households.
So concerned are various environmental groups about this growing problem, that many are now monitoring watercourses to detect sewage contamination. Dyes can be added to pipe networks to discover the origins of contamination points.
Fly populations that inhabit waterside environments are being monitored to detect alterations in normal populations caused by trace contaminants. When detected, the Environment Agency is informed. The Agency is then obliged to carry out further investigations to try to determine the source of the problem before it becomes a serious issue.
The government has also set up the Connect Right campaign. This body provides information and advice to homeowners and developers about connecting appliances to the correct drainage system. It also provides links to accredited Water Safe plumbing engineers. These plumbers and fitters have the relevant experience and the technical understanding of environmental issues to ensure that any work is correctly undertaken.
Homeowners with older properties are also recommended to have their drainage systems regularly checked to ensure correct operation. Deterioration of older pipe-work can cause seepage of contaminants into the wider environment causing harm to wildlife and human populations alike.
For homeowners and DIY enthusiasts, taking care to ensure that drainage systems are correctly identified prior to embarking on installations will help to reduce the problems associated with incorrect connection issues.
Where any plumbing work lies beyond the scope or experience of the householder, employing a professional and competent plumber will ensure that our natural habitats remain as unaffected by human activity as is possible.