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'Crapshoot' — How Sewage Contaminates Our Food Supply

The documentary, “Crapshoot: The Gamble with Our Wastes,” produced by the National Film Board of Canada in 2003, investigates an important aspect of human life you likely give little consideration: sewage.  Do you know what happens to the water and other items after you flush the toilet or run water down the drain?

If you’ve never stopped to consider what happens after you turn off the faucet or put down the lid, this one-hourlong film will edify you. It may surprise you to learn the many negative consequences resulting from our so-called “modern system” of waste management.

The True Face of Sewage

Sewers are used all over the world. Through its miles and miles of underground pipe, sewers collect everything you send down the drain or flush down your sink. While waste management may seem simple from your vantage point as a single user, it is much more complicated and complex than you may imagine.

If you’ve ever toured your local waste treatment plant, you have likely seen the mechanical filter called a bar screen that is used to remove large items such as baby wipes, condoms, diapers, feminine-hygiene items, hairballs, paper towels, plastic wrappers and the like.

Although it is somewhat inconvenient, at least these items can easily be seen, gathered up and disposed of as landfill waste. Of greater concern are the items contained in sewage that cannot be seen with the naked eye, as well as the mixing of all kinds of items. As narrator, the late Ruth DeGraves reminds us of the variety of the wastes that conspire to make sewage a kind of “toxic soup:”

“Down into the sewer they go: factory run-off, thousands of new synthetic chemicals, organic chemicals, pharmaceuticals, storm overflow, food wastes, human excrement, vomit, detergents, industrial solvents, petroleum products, paints, oils, abattoir wastes, cleansers, asbestos, radioactive materials, heavy metals and dental and hospital wastes, to name a few.”

In case you are not familiar with the term “abattoir,” it is the technical term used for slaughterhouse. As such, abattoir wastes include byproducts from livestock operations such as animal blood, fat, feces, stomach contents, trimmings and urine. Not only is sewage an ugly, stinking mess, it also is dangerous due to the intermixing of all those types of waste.

But, most of us seldom think about it. Boston-based Laura Orlando, civil engineer and waste-reform advocate, estimates that up to 75 percent of the U.S. is connected to sewers. As such, she believes Americans have become desensitized to the potential risks involved. In reality, most people both appreciate the sewer system and take it for granted.

As noted by Orlando, “When we think about a drain that carries whatever we dump into the pipe and takes it somewhere else, it helps us forget about all of the dangerous things that can be in that pipe.”