Phosphorus in Wastewater: What is It & Why MUST it be Removed?

Phosphorus is a natural nutrient that can become problematic when excessive, both in nature and in our bodies. All treatment plants, whether municipal, industrial, agricultural, or sewage, significantly impact local water bodies' quality. Proper phosphorus removal within wastewater treatment systems is critical for our health and the sustainability of our ecosystem.

In this post, we'll cover what phosphorus is, explain how it can negatively affect bodies of water, and who is taking the lead in preventing such calamity.


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What is Phosphorus?

Phosphorus is a nutrient that is one of the top 5 main elements of living organisms.

Phosphate Chemical Structure Model
Phosphate

Phosphate is the most common form of phosphorus, and within the human body, phosphate contributes to the health of our bones, DNA, RNA, and ATP. When the body accumulates more phosphate than necessary, the kidneys process it as waste.


So, what happens if a lake, stream, or pond, receives too much of a good thing? 😳

 

If you’ve ever seen a body of water with some unusual green buildup on its surface, you have witnessed eutrophication.

examples of eutrophication
examples of eutrophication

Why Does Excess Phosphorus Matter?

Eutrophication is when a disproportionate amount of phosphorus and/or nitrogen enters an aquatic habitat, resulting in excessive toxin-producing algae growth.


Consequently, there is a decrease in aquatic life due to suffocation caused by nutrient-consumption of available oxygen. Animals and humans who visit these areas, coined dead zones, experience extreme sickness (similar to food poisoning) or even death after chronic exposure.


To reduce public health risks and ecosystemic damage, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA), permitting through the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES), continues its efforts to significantly reduce the development of harmful algal blooms (HABs) and dead zones in water bodies.

EPA Recommendations

The Environmental Protection Agency recommends a limit of 0.05 mg/L 'Total Phosphorus' be applied to streams that enter lakes and 0.1 mg/L 'Total Phosphorus' for flowing waters.


 

3 Major Consequences of High-Level Phosphorus in Waste Streams

1. A decrease in aquatic life

A large portion of aquatic life consists of fish, so a shortage in the food chain, not to mention a lot of sad fishermen, would arise.


2. One or more recreational water bodies become too hazardous for public access

Water bodies (such as lakes, rivers, and streams) that were once a place of leisure and play are now a point of harmful, if not deadly, toxins.


3. Irreparable ecological deterioration that destroys biodiversity and wildlife

With every water body comprising harmful algal blooms (HABs), the scarcer the resources for wildlife. Plus, when an animal drinks from such a water source, the consumption of HABs is likely to result in death.


 

Current Issues Arising from High-Level Phosphorus Pollution


Tesco Suppliers Must Raise Standards to Avert Death of River Wye

River Action warns of phosphates in excrement produced by intensive chicken farming suffocating life

July 2022 | The Guardian | by Sandra Laville

"The Wye Valley has become one of Europe’s largest concentrations of intensive livestock production. Poultry production has soared, with more than 20 million birds housed within permitted intensive poultry units alone, each of which holds more than 40,000 birds. Water quality throughout the catchment continues to fail current standards due to high phosphate concentrations. Evidence from Lancaster University research suggests there are 3,000 tonnes of excess phosphorus caused by agriculture in the Wye valley."
 

Below Average Harmful Algal Bloom Predicted for Western Lake Erie

July 2022 | NOAA News Release | National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Bloom severity index for 2002-2021, and the forecast for 2022. The index is based on the amount of biomass over the peak 30-days. (NOAA)
Bloom severity index for 2002-2021, and the forecast for 2022. The index is based on the amount of biomass over the peak 30-days. (NOAA)
"Lake Erie blooms consisting of cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae, are capable of producing microcystin, a known liver toxin which poses a risk to human and wildlife health. Recent research has found that a long-term increase in the frequency of heavy rainfall events due to climate change may be causing more runoff during spring and summer months because the soil has less time to absorb the rain. Combined with the increase in bioavailable phosphorus concentration in the early 2000s (as a result of changes in agricultural practices), this rainfall trend may explain the higher-than-average phosphorus loads each spring over the last 14 years."
 

Additional articles to check out:

  1. Nitrogen (and Phosphorus): The environmental crisis you haven't heard of yet

  2. Phosphorus Levels in Geneva Lake are Continuing to Rise

  3. The Phosphorus Crisis: Threatens food and water security, but what's the solution?

 

3 Tips for Mitigating Phosphorus Problems within Your Community

Tip #1

Get to know your local wastewater treatment facility and determine if they treat/test for phosphorus concentrations.

  • Visit their website and view the current Water Quality Report.

  • They do not treat nor test for phosphorus if phosphorus is not listed. In this case, ask them why. If their answer does not sit well with you, request a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) from the EPA.

Tip #2

Be mindful when visiting your local lakes, rivers, and streams.

  • Are there any signs of eutrophication (green buildup on the surface)? If so, report it to the National Response Center at 1-800-424-8802. If you detect any immediate threat to human health or the environment, also call 911.

Tip #3

Identify any industrial or agricultural companies dumping wastewater into natural water bodies.

  • Proceed with steps from Tip#1

 

Now that you have a better understanding of what phosphorus is and why removing it from wastewater is essential, our Garrison Minerals team hopes you have the desire to spread the word and take action to make a difference.


Contact Garrison Minerals to discuss how you can safely and responsibly treat wastewater.


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REFERENCES

  1. Ferrante, M., Conti, G. O., Fiore, M., Rapisarda, V., & Ledda, C. (2013). Harmful Algal Blooms in the Mediterranean Sea: Effects on Human Health. EuroMediterranean Biomedical Journal, 8

  2. Jan H. Landsberg (2002) The Effects of Harmful Algal Blooms on Aquatic Organisms, Reviews in Fisheries Science, 10:2, 113-390, DOI: 10.1080/20026491051695

  3. Erdner, D. L., Dyble, J., Parsons, M. L., Stevens, R. C., Hubbard, K. A., Wrabel, M. L., ... & Trainer, V. L. (2008). Centers for Oceans and Human Health: a unified approach to the challenge of harmful algal blooms. Environmental Health, 7(2), 1-17.

  4. Berdalet, E., Fleming, L. E., Gowen, R., Davidson, K., Hess, P., Backer, L. C., ... & Enevoldsen, H. (2016). Marine harmful algal blooms, human health and wellbeing: challenges and opportunities in the 21st century. Journal of the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom, 96(1), 61-91.

  5. Eugene B. Welch & Jean M. Jacoby (2001) On Determining the Principal Source of Phosphorus Causing Summer Algal Blooms in Western Washington Lakes, Lake and Reservoir Management, 17:1, 55-65, DOI: 10.1080/07438140109353973

  6. Smith, D. R., King, K. W., & Williams, M. R. (2015). What is causing the harmful algal blooms in Lake Erie?. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation, 70(2), 27A-29A.

  7. Correll, D. L. (1998). The role of phosphorus in the eutrophication of receiving waters: A review. Journal of environmental quality, 27(2), 261-266.

  8. Conley, D. J., Paerl, H. W., Howarth, R. W., Boesch, D. F., Seitzinger, S. P., Havens, K. E., ... & Likens, G. E. (2009). Controlling eutrophication: nitrogen and phosphorus. Science, 323(5917), 1014-1015.

  9. Smil, V. (2000). Phosphorus in the environment: natural flows and human interferences. Annual review of energy and the environment, 25(1), 53-88.

  10. Carpenter, S. R., Caraco, N. F., Correll, D. L., Howarth, R. W., Sharpley, A. N., & Smith, V. H. (1998). Nonpoint pollution of surface waters with phosphorus and nitrogen. Ecological applications, 8(3), 559-568.

  11. Sharpley, A.N., Chapra, S.C., Wedepohl, R., Sims, J.T., Daniel, T.C. and Reddy, K.R. (1994), Managing Agricultural Phosphorus for Protection of Surface Waters: Issues and Options. Journal of Environmental Quality, 23: 437-451. https://doi.org/10.2134/jeq1994.00472425002300030006x

  12. Froelich, P. N. (1988). Kinetic control of dissolved phosphate in natural rivers and estuaries: a primer on the phosphate buffer mechanism 1. Limnology and oceanography, 33(4part2), 649-668.

  13. Søndergaard, M., Jensen, J. P., & Jeppesen, E. (2003). Role of sediment and internal loading of phosphorus in shallow lakes. Hydrobiologia, 506(1), 135-145.

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