This water isn't odour Cologne!

PUBLISHED: 09:43 06 January 2006 | UPDATED: 11:27 04 May 2010

Finding out what happens to our sewage

Finding out what happens to our sewage

FOR those of you who think this column stinks most weeks, this week you may be proved right. If you re eating as you re reading this, I advise you to stop, at least for the next few minutes. Sewage is not a pleasant business. Most of us have no idea how o

FOR those of you who think this column stinks most weeks, this week you may be proved right.

If you're eating as you're reading this, I advise you to stop, at least for the next few minutes.

Sewage is not a pleasant business. Most of us have no idea how our sewage is dealt with, and we're happy to keep it that way.

I, however, have no such luxury. Anyway, the day I let taste and decency rear their ugly twin heads in this column will be a sad day indeed.

So, prepare yourselves for some waste water wizardry. You see, we can't call it 'sewage' anymore.

It's 'waste water'. Just goes to show that nothing is spin-free these days.

The waste water treatment facility at Angel Drove, Ely, serves about 6,000 people in the city. By modern standards, it's tiny - the equivalent at Colchester serves 600,000.

It's been operating since 1996, and it cost Anglian Water £5 million to build. Despite the fact that thousands of litres of water pass through this plant daily, it only requires one person to check it, and even then he does it as part of a daily round.

So, what are we dealing with? Well, believe it or not, 99 per cent of waste water is just that - water. Only one per cent is what's quaintly termed "organic materials".

Once it's treated, the water which leaves the plant is cleaner than that which you would find in a river, but you still would not sensibly drink it. For drinking, it needs to be purified, sanitised and sterilised at a different facility, but the difference in the water which arrives at Angel Drove compared to that which leaves is vast.

First, the water goes through a screen which gets rid of all the grit and elements of solid waste, which are then siphoned off into a skip. Every aspect of the waste is looked after - there's even an odour control unit.

From here, the water is then aerated. This is a fascinating process. Millions and millions of tiny micro-organisms break down the waste, effectively 'cleaning' the water.

Air is put into it using diffusers and the organisms do their stuff. There is no need for any chemicals - it's a purely biological process.

Amazing, really. Nature does all the best work.

The whole process, from start to finish, takes about 36 hours, so it's efficient, too.

If anything goes wrong, the automatic alarm system is activated and there is someone on-call 24 hours a day. Having said that, it's run smoothly for the last 10 years so there's no reason to suppose there's going to be any drastic problems now.

The Environment Agency carries out spot-checks on a monthly basis and you will be pleased to know that the outgoing water has always passed muster.

It's amazing what people will try and chuck in the nation's waterways, too. Anglian Water spends £5 million a year on clearing blockages, and the following have all been found by AW: mattresses, bikes, shopping trolleys (they get everywhere, don't they?), builders' rubble, false teeth and a false leg. A few more body-parts and you'd have enough for a bionic man.

I can't imagine an Environment Agency bigwig testing a water sample and saying: "Hmmmm, too much shopping trolley," but I refuse to be shocked by anything anymore.

Clean water is important. Technically, having it saves more lives than the NHS, as clean water means no cholera, dysentery, or typhoid, regular killers in the 19th century.

It's all too easy to forget that widespread water treatment facilities have only come into being over the last 60 to 70 years.

People say parts of London are a disgrace now, but can you imagine the capital prior to the sewer system we know today?

Anglian Water is continuing to try to improve. It has invested £5 billion since privatisation in 1989, and £1.5 billion will be invested over the next five years.

It covers the largest geographical area in the country, so there is plenty of work on. And it serves five million people, which adds up to a huge quantity of waste.

Rather them than me, in my humble opinion. The only muck-spreading I'm going to be doing is via this column.

Just goes to show - it pays to call in the experts!

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