Public Health Impacts of Polluted Runoff

Urbanization has fundamentally altered the way that water moves through the landscape. When rainwater can’t soak into the ground, it runs along streets and parking lots and picks up pollutants. This polluted runoff can flow into our rivers and streams, or overwhelm local infrastructure to cause sewage overflows.

Protecting Public Health with Green Infrastructure

America Rivers advocates for green infrastructure solutions (such as permeable pavement, green roofs, and rain gardens) that reduce stormwater runoff that flows into sewer systems and triggers sewage overflows. These practices make cities act more like forests by capturing rainwater where it falls, filtering out pollutants and reducing large volumes of runoff. In a new series of reports, American Rivers examines the cost-effectiveness of green infrastructure and innovative financing mechanisms for sustainable water infrastructure.

American Rivers’ white paper, Growing Green: How Green Infrastructure Can Improve Livability and Public Health [PDF] builds upon the benefits of green infrastructure and provides a compendium of potential benefits that green infrastructure provides to improve community health and livability. From rain gardens to green roofs, green infrastructure practices decrease pollutant loadings into waters, which can reduce illness from recreational contact or polluted drinking water. Green infrastructure solutions can also improve air quality and mitigate the urban heat island effect to lower heat stress related fatalities. By increasing the amount of green space, from parks to green roofs, these stormwater management practices can reduce potential crime by alleviating conditions that lead to aggressive and violent behavior and increasing implied and actual surveillance. Green infrastructure can also mitigate localized flooding. These practices improve access to healthy and affordable food when combined with urban agriculture strategies and to green space for recreation.

Health Effects of Sewage

The public health and environmental implications of sewage overflows are tremendous. Sewage pollutes our waters with pathogens, excess nutrients, heavy metals, and other toxins. It kills aquatic life and creates algal blooms that can suffocate fisheries.

Even worse, sewage carries pathogens that can end up in our drinking water supplies and swimming areas. These disease-causing microorganisms cause diarrhea, vomiting, respiratory, and other infections, hepatitis, dysentery, and other diseases. Common illnesses caused by swimming in and drinking untreated or partially treated sewage include gastroenteritis, but sewage is also linked to long term, chronic illnesses such as cancer, heart disease, and arthritis.

Experts estimate that there are 7.1 million mild-to-moderate cases and 560,000 moderate-to-severe cases of infectious waterborne disease in the United States each year and the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that between 1.8 and 3.5 million people are estimated to get sick from recreational contact with sewage from sanitary sewer overflows annually. While most people recover from these diseases, they can be deadly for children, the elderly, and other patients with weakened immune systems who comprise approximately 30% of our population at any one time.