Most of us prefer not to think where the water goes when we flush. But what if our sewage didn’t just disappear down drains? What if it reappeared, puddled up beneath our drying laundry?

Human waste, animal waste. Taking care of it–making sure fecal matter doesn’t contaminate our yards and waterways, cleaning it up when it does–is one of the biggest environmental jobs North Carolina faces. And it's not just hog farms spilling acres of waste into rivers, either. We’ve got problems that reach from our backyards to our beaches.

Epidemiologist Steve Wing and the Concerned Citizens of Tillery (CCT) have been partners before–keeping track of the hog industry in North Carolina’s black belt, educating the area’s residents about such issues. But when the CCT got in touch with Wing this time, the pollution they were worried about wasn’t the result of hog lagoons or other agricultural runoff–the culprit was clay and a neighborhood overdue for municipal services.

In many areas of North Carolina, soil type and shallow water tables make sewage treatment by septic systems virtually impossible. Gray clay, already full of water, simply can’t absorb–or percolate–the wastewater to purify it. Since the 1970s, the state has prohibited land development on nonpercolating soil. In certain counties down east, such as Gates and Tyrrell, that means that less than one percent of the land can be zoned for development.

For the people who already live on that land, choices are limited. Wing asks, “Is it worse to have indoor plumbing and a failed septic system, or an outhouse?” In Halifax County, nearly 10 percent of the population visits an outhouse. But for a family living near town, with a septic system long set up, the choice is no choice. It’s suffer the failed septic system. And when an entire neighborhood suffers failed systems, the plot thickens.

Purnell Park, a historically African American community just outside the town of Halifax, is one such neighborhood. Despite its proximity to the town–it’s just two blocks from the county health department–Purnell Park was never connected to Halifax’s sewage treatment plant. The 40 houses in the neighborhood relied on individual septic systems, and for several years residents have noticed increasing sewage problems. Worried about health issues, neighborhood leaders asked the CCT for help.

The town was actually in the middle of applying for grant money to upgrade its sewage treatment facility when the CCT contacted Wing; the town’s plans did not include Purnell Park. This exclusion did not faze the neighborhood activists–they saw the grant as a golden opportunity.

By getting in touch with the CCT, the people of Purnell Park were able to corral an already established triumvirate of investigators that fulfilled the grant’s requirements–Wing represented Carolina; Gary Grant, the CCT; and M.L. Tanner, the Halifax Health Department. With this combo, the neighborhood was able to begin negotiations with the town to include Purnell Park in their upgrade.

But the group needed solid evidence. So neighborhood activists, with the assistance of Lisa Tobe, then a graduate student in the School of Public Health, drew up a survey and started interviewing people in the neighborhood. They were interested in liveability issues: How often does the sewage puddle up? How many houses are affected? They found problems in over 90 percent of houses, from sewer pipes backed up into houses, to wastewater pooled in backyards and driveways. Untreated sewage from these houses was making the 600-yard trek to the river every time it rained.

As residents canvassed the neighborhood, another Carolina graduate student, Dana Cole, collected water samples. Her results were remarkable–in some parts of Purnell Park, colonies of bacteria in the water samples were too dense to count, even when diluted. At another site, the count dropped to a more readable 30,000 colonies per 100 milliliters (ml). Beaches in North Carolina close if the coliform count tops 200 per 100 ml of undiluted water.

Armed with survey and sampling results, and backed by the support of a citizen group, research institute, and health department, the town won a hardship grant from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to run a sewage line to the neighborhood.

But the happy ending for Purnell Park is just one neighborhood's story. Of the 20 organizations that applied for the moneys, only two won awards.

Though last November’s elections approved an $800 million clean-water bond, a recent report from the North Carolina Rural Economic Development Center projects an $11.34 billion price tag to cover North Carolina’s water and sewer needs.

Two floors up from Steve Wing's office, Mark Sobsey is on the phone, talking with a Dare County citizen. He's upset because his town's beach has just been shut down another month.

Southern Shores is just north of Nags Head, on the tip of the Outer Banks’ necklace curve west. One side of town meets the Atlantic; the other, Currituck Sound.

Like many towns on the Outer Banks, Southern Shores has neighborhoods connected to the sound through a series of canals. A children’s wading beach edges these canals. Lately, it has gained infamy by its repeat appearance on North Carolina’s health advisory list–the fecal coliform count in the water too high for healthy swimming. Numbers have been high off and on since April 1998, but the town has not yet figured out where the fecal waste is coming from. So a town representative has called Sobsey.

Sobsey, environmental sciences and engineering professor and an expert on water and wastewater solutions, is the person municipalities go to when they’ve got fecal waste problems. North Carolina towns call him up, and so does New York City. A few years ago, the NYC Department of Environmental Protection was on the phone. A reservoir filling New York City’s water glasses was testing high in fecal waste, and the city needed to solve the problem–fast.

Using tests he helped develop, Sobsey and his lab were able to I.D. the fecal source as animal–more specifically, bird. The reservoir wardens put two and two together and quickly identified the foul-water problem. Every year increasing numbers of migratory geese and other birds were flying by, using the lake as a flight-side motel and bathhouse. The city's solution was simple and cost-effective–they now hire motor boaters to zoom through, discouraging dawdling geese. Problem found, problem sol-ved, and without spending the millions of dollars the city worried it was destined to fork out in cleanup.

The solution to Southern Shores’ problem is less obvious. Finding the contamination in a reservoir reserved for drinking water is one thing, finding the contaminant for a beach near a grid of canals is another. Sobsey says the first thing his lab will do is take a look at the site and map out activities in the area. Then they will identify the waste source, human or not. By figuring this out, the scientists can begin the process of tracing the waste's movements. If the waste is human, its source could be a failed septic system or contamination from a poorly regulated marina; if beast, the contributing factor could be runoff from pets, or from feral animals, like the geese in New York.

A wastewater beach is no joke. “Swimming-associated illnesses in contaminated waters are well documented,” Sobsey says. It’s almost impossible for people to swim in water without swallowing some of it. Kids, especially, are likely to gulp down a lot. Yet it wasn’t until June 1997 that North Carolina initiated a monitoring system to test for fecal wastes in recreational beach water.

During tourist season, the surveyors test the waters once a week. Beginning in September, that number falls to twice a month. Some areas, especially marinas, where irresponsible sailors pull the plug on their sewage instead of pumping it out, can be closed to swimming and wading indefinitely.

Though Dare County and the town of Southern Shores are living with a few months of poor scores, the good news for North Carolina is that most of our recreational beaches have top grades in water quality.

Fecal coliform tests are commonly used for pinpointing waste contamination, as every warm-blooded digestive system, and every waste site, is rife with the bacteria. Though the most familiar member is E. coli, the coliform family is large, and not every bacteria type causes illness. But because of fecal coliform bacteria’s constant presence in feces, they are a good sign–what scientists call an “indicator”–of contamination.

Though a smelly subject, waste’s biggest threat to humans is its nature as a pathogen container. Illnesses that can spread with waste include typhoid fever, viral and bacterial gastroenteritis, and hepatitis A. More common illnesses associated with coliform exposure include digestive system problems such as upset stomachs and fevers.

Sobsey suggests that bacteria, off the beach, are perhaps the least of our wastewater problems. He says, “Sewage treatment has been developed to deal with bacteria from sewage. It is less effective at dealing with the viruses that also dwell there.” Of particular concern to Sobsey is the prevalence of the hepatitis A virus in our waterways. A persistent pathogen, hepatitis A is hard to kill. Once it infects a bed of shellfish, it can take weeks to flush out, even in clean holding tanks.

Less dangerous, but more common and even more difficult to kill, is the parasite Cryptosporidium parvum. Also called crypto, it is immune to the effects of chlorine. “Crypto can make a healthy person feel pretty sick for a few days, but for a person with an immune suppressed disorder, it's really bad news,” Sobsey says.

How much Cryptosporidia get into our waterways is hard to tell, Sobsey says. The bacteria are easy to identify, so that’s what the tests look for. But Sobsey sees these bacteriological tests as problematic. He says, “One of their major flaws is that some of these bacteria appear even if there isn’t fecal contamination, raising the red flag that water quality might not be good.”

Sobsey’s more inclined to trust tests that look for specific bacteria, such as E. coli, which shows up only with fecal contamination. His lab is developing better methods to detect viruses such as hepatitis A and parasites such as Cryptosporidium. Right now, they’re running studies in the lab to prepare for their field tests. Those fields will be the coastal and inland waterways of North Carolina.

Julia Bryan was formerly a staff writer for Endeavors.

The Purnell Park sewer project was funded by NIEHS. Mark Sobsey's research is funded by the US Environmental Protection Agency, UNC Sea Grant College Program, and UNC Water Resources Research Institute.