Human effluent, which includes all the toxins and chemicals we put into our bodies, is a problem for any water basin that resides near human habitations. Many of these contaminants are referred to as organic waste compounds, and include dozens of pollutants excreted from the human body, we well compounds that get dumped down the drain, runoff from human and animal activities, and many other sources. Because wastewater has been better regulated in the past decades, the problem of sewage contamination is often connected to non-point contamination, such as combined sewage overflows (malfunctioning sewage systems), as well as urban runoff. Another means of contamination, which is easier to pinpoint, is the undertreated water from wastewater treatment plants (Phillips, Chalmers, (2009).

There are various stages and types of treatment for human sewage, from water treatment facilities, constructed wetlands, sewage systems, living machines/ ecologically engineered systems and more, yet we still find that contaminants find their way into our streams, rivers and lakes. The report, “Wastewater Effluent, Combined Sewer Overflows, and Other Sources of Organic Compounds to Lake Champlain,” not only looks at human contaminants in terms of combined sewage overflows, but also water processed through wastewater treatment plants and urban runoff. It was found that “detergent degradates, organophosphate esters, and sterols” were all major contaminates found in the lake.

Some other major chemicals from human waste, that found their way into the lake are caffeine, cholesterol, and Tris(2-butoxyethyl)phosphate (TBEP), which have been effectively removed by wastewater treatment plants, but still contaminate the lake through sewage overflows and urban runoff. The study took samples that related to a variety of locations, where it was clear that there were different levels of contaminants from “the main Burlington plant,” “Combined Sewage Overflows,” “Potash Brook,” and “Englesby Brook.” This sampling helped determine the types of places these contaminants came from and helped to explain where key points of waste absorption might happen. For instance, tris(dichloroisopropyl)phosphate (TCPP), galaxolide, and NP2EO were all organic waste compounds that the wastewater treatment plant did not eliminate effectively. These were not as relevant to the other means of contamination, such as runoff, because those waters were more diluted (Phillips, Chalmers, (2009). Of course, other significant contaminants that threaten lake ecosystems are fecal coliforms, such as E. Coli, which can be eliminated through wastewater treatment with the use of inactivation, absorption and sedimentation (Boutilier,, Jamieson,, Gordon,, Lake,, Hart, (2009).

Sewage Absorption in relation to structure, function and value

The structure of the Lake Champlain plays a large role in how it functions in terms of absorbing sewage contamination. Although there are the structures in the lake basin that absorb the wastes, such as sediments and biotic life, another important factor is the structure of the wetlands (both manmade and natural) that surround the lake as well as both conventional and potential ecological wastewater treatment facilities. There are various types of constructed wetlands that could be incorporated to maintaining the function of sewage absorption. One process is the horizontal-flow and constructed wetlands, appropriate for a variety of wastewaters, from domestic waste to industrial wastes. This means that waste water travels horizontally through aerobic, anoxic and anaerobic zones (Vymazal, 2009). The value of these waste absorption capacities is in preserving and improving the quality of the lake, from safer swimming and other recreation, to the development of more complex ecosystems that can handle larger flows of pollutants as well as providing flood control (Vymazal, 2009). This will hold value when there are unpredictable sewage leakages or large storms at various points in the future.

According to the article “Ecologically engineered system (EES) designed to integrate floating, emergent and submerged macrophytes for the treatment of domestic sewage and acid rich fermented-distillery wastewater: Evaluation of long term performance,” as well as the technologies pioneered by John Todd ( hotlink, there are methods for using biotic life to rid water of contaminants. The “living machines” that John Todd is known for inventing, treat water in stages, with a variety of specific life forms, such as plants, algae, fungi, fish, snails, microorganisms, and more, which all work to cleanse the water. These “living machines” not only naturally cleanse the water, with natural technologies, and success rates are very high.

Example of a living machine from

For instance, according the study conducted on EES, by Venkata et al., it was note that “Designed EES showed efficiency in treating both domestic sew- age and fermented-distillery wastewater. About 44% of volatile fatty acids (VFA) removal was observed…” production process. The technologies don’t require large energy inputs, and are much more pleasing to the eye than a traditional facility (Venkata et al., 2010).

It is clear that regulating human effluent in Lake Champlain isn’t a one-step solution. We should be working to improve our existing wastewater facilities, while also better regulating homeowners and business’s sewage systems, and taking steps to educate people about what they can and cannot dump down their drains or even into the lake. The problem of urban and agricultural runoff are also complex because it is non-point pollution, yet by using more ecological technologies, such as the living machines, it would allow us to place these treatment systems in more public spaces and help to demonstrate the possibilities that biotic life offer for keeping Lake Champlain clean.

In turn, this should also encourage people to protect and preserve the most natural regulators we have for water treatment which are the wetlands that surround us, and continue to be destroyed.


Boutilier L., Jamieson R., Gordon R., Lake C., Hart W. Adsorption, sedimentation, and inactivation of E. coli within wastewater treatment wetlands (2009) Water Research, 43 (17), pp. 4370-4380.

Ecosystems and Human Well-Being: Wetlands and Water Synthesis. (2005). In 
Millenium Ecosystem Assessment. Retrieved from

John Todd Ecological Design. “About Eco-Machines.” Sustainable Water Management.
Retrieved from 

Phillips, P., and A. Chalmers. “Wastewater Effluent, Combined Sewer Overflows, and Other Sources of Organic Compounds to Lake Champlain.” Journal of         the American Water Resources Association 45.1 (2009): 45-57. Environment Complete. EBSCO. Web. 4 Mar. 2010.

Venkata Mohan, S., Mohanakrishna, G., Chiranjeevi, P., Peri, D., & Sarma, P. (2010). Ecologically engineered system (EES) designed to integrate floating, emergent and submerged macrophytes for the treatment of domestic sewage and acid rich fermented-distillery wastewater: Evaluation of long term performance. Bioresource Technology, 101(10), 3363-3370. doi:10.1016/j.biortech.2009.12.027.

Vymazal J. The use constructed wetlands with horizontal sub-surface flow for various types of wastewater (2009) Ecological Engineering, 35 (1), pp. 1-17.

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