Do You Know Where It Goes When You Flush?

By Jackie Giuliano


Water flows from high in the mountains,
Water runs deep in the Earth.
Miraculously, water comes to us,
and sustains all life.
-Thich Nhat Hanh


Last week, I took students from my Environment and

Human Health class to the Hyperion Waste Water Treatment Plant in Los Angeles.

I do this frequently and, each time, it is a powerful experience, both for the senses

(particularly the nose!) and the psyche. This one waste water plant, which

receives what we flush down the drains from our homes and businesses,

processes over 450 million gallons of waste water EVERY DAY. And this is but

one of three plants that service the Los Angeles area.


No treatment, by the way, is done on water entering all the curbside sewers

- the storm drains - and another 25 million gallons of water per day goes

down those drains. That water, containing the runoff of a city of 7 million

people, can contain tens of thousands of pounds of lead, zinc, cadmium, and

other heavy metals and toxins. It flows directly to the ocean, creating

toxic zones where sea life, swimmers, lifeguards, and surfers are poisoned

each day. During a heavy rain in 1989, 8 inches of rain washed 150,000

pounds of lead, 500,000 pounds of zinc, and 11,000 pounds of cadmium into

the Santa Monica Bay. All this from the air pollution that settles on plants

and on the ground, animal waste, pesticides from watering our lawns, and

illegal dumping of wastes by businesses. Many tons of other kinds of human

waste go into the storm drains as well. Refrigerators, car parts, and solid waste

of all kinds wind up in the ocean.


Nowhere is the evidence of our isolation from the full magnitude of our

resource use and our disconnection from the natural world so evident than

with how we use water in our homes. On a typical day, a resident of Los

Angeles will dump 100 gallons of wastewater down the drain. This includes

wastewater from bathroom and kitchen drains as well as the toilet. The daily

flow is over 1 billion gallons that travels through 6,500 miles of buried

sewer pipes.


One flush of a standard toilet in the U.S. uses more water than most of the

world's people use individually in a day. At least 25 million people die

each year in the lesser developed countries from contaminated water and

three-fifths of them are children. Worldwide, every hour 1,000 children die

from water born-diseases.


Yet inpreciousness. And our dietary choices result in a tremendous impact on our

world. Providing a single fast food order of a hamburger, fries, and a soda

requires over 1,500 gallons of water to prepare and serve. Most of that

water is used to raise, process, and cook the beef. To raise, process and

cook a 20-pound turkey requires about 16,300 gallons of water! Making a ton

of steel can take as much as 500,000 gallons of water.


Hyperion's job is monumental. Although Los Angeles is a desert, receiving

less than 12-inches of rainfall per year, there are virtually no water

conservation efforts. Water is still very inexpensive, and is taken from

Northern California and transported from the Sierra Nevada mountains to L.A.

along hundreds of miles of aqueducts.


Here is the troublesome key to the issue - rather than affect a change in

our habits, our lifestyles, and our values, cities often choose to use

technology and rationalization to treat our dilemmas - and our sewage.


At Hyperion, the incoming waste (which is 99% water) is first strained of

the "big chunks" like condoms, cotton swabs, tampons, and everything else we

flush down our drains. Reading about this stuff is one thing, but as

studenand smelling our society's detritus scraped up and over straining screens

to hit waiting dumpsters, one cannot help feel the responsibility and the



From there, the waste water enters more filtering screens to get out more of

the solids. Conveyor belts go whizzing by with the human "compost" and we

see undigested capsules (vitamins and medicines taken too soon before a

visit to the bathroom) and thousands of seeds. That's right, seeds. Our

guide points out the tomato seeds. You see, humans cannot digest most seeds

from the fruits and vegetables we eat. Outside that building, along the

cracks in sidewalk, amidst the roar of earth-moving machinery and rumble of

trucks, tomato plants grow and birds feast on their bounty in a surrealistic

testimony to the resiliency of life.


But those solids contain much more than just seeds and the occasional

vitamin capsule. They also contain heavy metals and other toxic waste that

thousands of businesses in Southern California legally and illegally dump

down their drains every day. You can even tell the time of year by measuring

the amount of some toxins. Thousands of jewelry stores dump cyanide from

jewelry cleaners down the drain every day.


It is "too expensive" to do anything about the toxins, so they are left in

the solids, rationalized away as being in concentrations that are below

"federal standards" and shipped to processing plants. Some is buried, but

most of it is used for fertilizer. It is not supposed to be used on food

crops, yet the City of Los Angeles Department of Sanitation is very proud of

their "Top Grow" brand of garden compost that they sell through local chain



The wastewater continues on its journey through Hyperion, resting for a

while in large covered tanks where bacteria eat away at as much of the

remaining solids and organic matter as they can. The resulting water is

allowed to rest for a while, given time for the gorged bacteria to settle

out along with as much of the remaining solids time allows, and then flushed

through an underground pipe 5 miles out into the ocean at a depth of 3,000

feet. The wastewater spends about eight hours at Hyperion before being

dumped at sea.


So let's get this straight. Hyperion alone sends nearly 500 million gallons

of wastewater every day into the ocean. The total is over 1 billion gallons

per day when you add the waste from the other two plants into the picture.

This water is not drinkable. It could be made drinkable, but no one wants to

spend that kind of money. It can still make you very sick. This has been

going on since the 1860's. And it is better today.


Until 1987, the solid sludge was also dumped into the ocean. It was totally

untreated until 1950. From 1949 through 1970, 1,000 pounds of DDT per day

was dumped into the sewers. The huge solid waste "doughnut" that rests on

the ocean floor off Santa Monica Bay, covers two square miles. Ocean

currents continually bring this material up, poisoning sea life and bathers.


So what now? As I said earlier, we keep relying on technology to get us out

of our messes. But that doesn't work, does it? Well sometimes it can.

Billions of dollars are being spent "upgrading" Hyperion to handle the

increase in capacity in the coming years. Yet there is a company in Texas

that produces a toilet that does not need to be hooked up to any city sewer

system! After a series of uses, you push a button, and the waste is

incinerated at 1400 degrees Fahrenheit. The ash is completely germ-free and

the resulting teaspoon of ash can be thrown in the trash. It uses no water,

drains nothing out, and the emissions to the air are clean. They cost under

$2000. What if all the money being spent on Hyperion were used to buy these

toilets for everyone. We could reduce our toilet waste water use to ZERO.

Why doesn't this happen?


What can we do? Here are some ideas.


1. Don't be afraid of the information. Read it, go to a wastewater plant in

your town and tour it. Smell it. Take responsibility for it.


2. Resist the notion that we have been saddled with since birth that our

government is there to take care of us. This is a great fallacy. We must

make our own choices. We must decide how we want to live.


3. Get upset with pollution. Every time you hear of a beach closure or a

person getting sick from going into the water, don't just say "oh, that's

too bad." Take it personally. Realize that it could have been you. Look

around you at home and take another step to reduce your water use.


4. Find out how the places you patronize conduct their business. Ask your

jeweler how they dispose of their waste. If their response is not

satisfactory, tell them you cannot support them and take your business



5. Notice how your community is built. Find out where the storm drains are.

If you live in a coastal city, find out where the drains enter the ocean.

Keep yourself and your family away from them. If you see some dumping that

looks suspicious, call the police.


6. Talk about this at parties! That's right. Decide what you want your

values to be and live them all the time. Leading a double life not only

keeps the problems going, but damages our psyches in ways we cannot know.

Work through the fear of becoming the bearer of bad news. Take time to be

depressed, but then turn your knowledge into empowerment.


7. Reduce your own water use around the house. Fix leaky faucets. Don't

flush every time you urinate. That's right! Let it accumulate for a few

uses. It's not going to hurt anyone and it doesn't even smell. Get a low

flush toilet. Most water utilities will give them to you for free or pay for

most of the cost. Maybe you can even consider getting an incinerating toilet.


8. If you are healthy and have not heavily exerted yourself, you do not have

to shower every day! Doing so is actually not healthy. We are constantly

washing away vital skin oils. Unless you sweat a lot each day, every other

day is fine.


9. Have a body odor problem? Examine your diet and lifestyle. Body odor

comes from out of-balance metabolic processes. Don't buy a deodorant that

closes your pores. Look for the cause. You see, it is all connected!


We have so many options, so many ways out. There are solutions to every

issue. The answer lies safe and secure within each of our hearts.

Unfortunately, it is surrounded with myths and fears and expectations. Take

a chance, expand the boundaries of your world. Dare to learn what is going

on around your community, dare to take responsibility for it, and dare to do

something about it.


As I said in last week's article, Czechoslovakian activist and leader Vaclav

Havel said that the true nature of revolt is to "attempt to live within the

truth." He said we must step out of living within the lie, reject the ritual

and break the rules of the game. Through this, he says, we can discover

suppressed identity and dignity. What a feeling of satisfaction you are in

for when you begin to live within the truth.





1. The numbers about our water crisis as well as other environmental facts

can be found in Biosphere 2000: Protecting our Global Environment, by Donald

Kaufman and Cecilia Franz. It is published by Kendall/Hunt in Dubuque, Iowa.


2. To learn more about the Incinolet Electric Toilet, visit


3. Visit the World Wide Water page to learn more about water resources at


4. Visit the Water Quality Web Site at


5. For more details about wastewater, check out


6. For more water conservation information, visit!waterde.c19/12_95_6.HTM


7. Although we are all trying to reduce our consumption, if you have to

consume, consider products that support sustainable living. Check out the

Real Goods catalog at


8. For more on the works of Thich Nhat Hahn, visit



{Jackie Giuliano can be found flushing as little as possible in Venice,

California. He is a Professor of Environmental Studies for Antioch

University, Los Angeles, the University of Phoenix, and the Union Institute

College of Undergraduate Studies. He is also the Educational Outreach

Manager for the Ice and Fire Preprojects, a NASA program at the Jet

Propulsion Laboratory to send space probes to Jupiter's moon Europa, the

planet Pluto, and the Sun. Please send your thoughts and comments to him at



*this article was first seen in EnviroNews