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We all know that septic systems need routine maintenance or you risk a failure that could create major problems both inside and outside of your home. Inexpensive fixes turn into expensive projects quickly if left unchecked. It could be as simple as a backed up toilet or as dramatic as a cracked septic tank that needs to be replaced.

If your septic system is failing, the potential mess is not the only thing to worry about. You should also be concerned about the health risks that you and your family could face if you do not have your septic system properly serviced and repaired. Be mindful of regular septic maintenance, cleaning and inspection.

The consequences of a failing septic system are more difficult to handle than preventing the system from failing.


Septic System Overview

Septic systems are underground wastewater treatment structures, commonly used in rural areas without centralized sewer systems. They use a combination of nature and proven technology to treat wastewater from household plumbing produced by bathrooms, kitchen drains, and laundry.

A typical septic system consists of a septic tank and a drainfield, or soil absorption field.

The septic tank digests organic matter and separates floatable matter (e.g., oils and grease) and solids from the wastewater. Soil-based systems discharge the liquid (known as effluent) from the septic tank into a series of perforated pipes buried in a leach field, chambers, or other special units designed to slowly release the effluent into the soil.

Alternative systems use pumps or gravity to help septic tank effluent trickle through sand, organic matter (e.g., peat and sawdust), constructed wetlands, or other media to remove or neutralize pollutants like disease-causing pathogens, nitrogen, phosphorus, and other contaminants. Some alternative systems are designed to evaporate wastewater or disinfect it before it is discharged to the soil.


Signs of Septic System Failure

  • Water and sewage from toilets, drains, and sinks are backing up into the home
  • Bathtubs, showers, and sinks drain very slowly
  • Gurgling sounds in the plumbing system
  • Standing water or damp spots near the septic tank or drainfield
  • Bad odors around the septic tank or drainfield
  • Bright green, spongy lush grass over the septic tank or drainfield, even during dry weather
  • Algal blooms in nearby ponds or lakes
  • High levels of nitrates or coliform bacteria in water wells


What Causes a Septic System to Fail?

Septic system failure is most commonly the result of:

  • Improper design or installation of the system;
  • Overuse of water in the home; and/or
  • Improper maintenance.


The Problem With Gasses:

When a septic system is failing, the fumes that are released from the various gasses built up in the septic tank can be toxic to humans and pets. Methane, for example, is a colorless, odorless, tasteless, flammable gas. Although it is non-toxic, methane is a “simple asphyxiant” because it can displace oxygen, which is needed for breathing. Methane is also extremely flammable and can explode quite easily.

Nitrate poses a significant threat to the health of human infants. When ingested, nitrate can interfere with the blood’s ability to carry oxygen, causing methemoglobinemia or “blue baby” syndrome.

  • Methane Gas

Methane gas is highly flammable and can be ignited with a simple spark of a match. Many homes have gas ovens with open flames. If methane gas was to flow out through your kitchen drains and linger in the air, the possibility of a fire is just a spark away.

Aside from merely being an unpleasant odor, methane is toxic to humans and animals. Plus, it’s highly combustible, which could make everyday activities, like starting your grill, a severe hazard. Someone who inhales methane may experience asphyxiation: the process of which one is deprived of oxygen. This can result in someone passing out as they can continue to inhale the toxic gas which can ultimately be fatal.


  • Hydrogen Sulfide Gas

While the majority of septic fumes are made up of methane, hydrogen sulfide is one of the most common gasses in your septic tank. Faulty sink drains, broken seals around the toilet, and vent pipe leaks all serve as avenues for hydrogen sulfide gas to be released into your home.

Low levels of sulfide gas can result in eye irritation. As the levels increase, one can experience eye damage and paralysis in the sense of smell. Respiratory depression can be expected in extreme conditions which can become fatal.

The odor is commonly described as smelling like rotten eggs. Exposure to low levels of this chemical can irritate the eyes, cause a cough or sore throat, shortness of breath and fluid accumulation in the lungs. Prolonged low-level exposure may cause fatigue, pneumonia, loss of appetite, headaches, irritability, memory loss and dizziness. High concentrations of hydrogen sulfide can cause loss of consciousness and death.


Health Risks of Sewage Exposure

Septic tank systems are the largest of all contributors of wastewater to the ground and are the most frequently reported sources of groundwater contamination in the United States. Bacteria, viruses, and parasites (including worms and protozoans) are the types of pathogens in wastewater that are hazardous to humans.

Bacteria are microscopic organisms that are responsible for several wastewater related diseases, including typhoid, paratyphoid, bacillary dysentery, gastroenteritis, and cholera. Most infect the stomach and intestinal tract and can cause symptoms like headache, diarrhea (sometimes with blood), abdominal cramps, fever, nausea, and vomiting. Depending on the bacteria involved, symptoms can begin hours to several days after ingestion.

Viruses cannot multiply outside their hosts, and wastewater is a hostile environment for them. But enough viruses survive in water to make people sick. Hepatitis A, polio, and viral gastroenteritis are a few of the diseases that can be contracted from viruses in wastewater.


  • Viruses

Viruses can cause gastroenteritis, which can be mistaken as the stomach flu. This virus can cause diarrhea, abdominal pain, cramping, nausea, and excessive vomiting. Another virus, poliomyelitis can cause temporary or even permanent paralysis. Symptoms such as sore throat, fever, nausea, vomiting, constipation, and abdominal pain are common.


  • Bacterial Problems

Bacterial infections can occur due to exposure to sewage if left untreated and uncleaned. Infections can become blood borne which can then turn into life-threatening issues. One bacterial infection known as campylobacteriosis can cause bloody stool, fever, cramping, and vomiting.

A more common bacterial infection related to sewage exposure is E. coli, which can develop into the fatal hemolytic uremic syndrome, eventually turning into kidney failure or even death if it is not addressed properly. Symptoms with E. coli include nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, and fever among other related issues.

Common waterborne parasites can cause Cryptosporidiosis and Giardiasis. These are two of the most common diseases in the U.S., which can cause similar symptoms as listed above.


How to Prevent Septic System Failures

There are many ways to prevent problems with your septic system. If you want to avoid problems and potential health risks, here are some things to consider:

  • Maintain the system by pumping regularly
  • Hire a professional to inspect the septic system
  • Limit Grease Discharge
  • Avoid planting trees or shrubs near system due to root growth



Keeping Your Septic Tank Healthy

To keep your septic tank healthy, you need to keep the “good” bacteria in it. Harsh detergents, bleach, and chemical drain cleaners kill the good bacteria in your septic tank. One way to add good bacteria to your septic system is to flush a packet of brewer’s dry yeast down one toilet on the bottom floor of your home one time per month. Try using biodegradable and “septic safe” cleaning products such as vinegar and baking soda.

At West Coast Sanitation, we know that you do not have time to deal with septic problems. One of the ways you can maintain this balance and keep your septic system working like it should is to have your tank pumped regularly. Please give us a call at (951) 780-5922 right away. We have professionals ready to answer your questions and get your system working properly again.