How many times has water been piss?

Yet another challenge for you: how many times has the water you drink been pissed out of a vertebrate (something with a spine) in the past? If the number is very small, then those who baulk at drinking recycled water have more cause to complain than if the number is very high.

The question is quite relevant to Australia: within Australia there is a large public antipathy towards recycling waste water because of the ‘yuk’ factor whereby people don’t like the idea they are drinking reconstituted piss. This reluctance has real consequences for urban water shortages. In other countries they are not so fussy, so it matters whether or not water has been piss many times already. If not, the ‘yuk’ factor is more understandable. If, on the other hand, water has been piss many times in the past already, the ‘yuk’ factor is a matter of ignorance in that one cannot avoid drinking reconstituted piss.

I can already say that there is no official answer to this one, at least not that I have found, so you will be breaking new scientific ground with a good estimate. I thus invite you in the comment thread to give a decently founded guess.

So, what’s the question exactly? The question is how often the atoms in the average water molecule will have been part of the piss coming out of a vertebrate.[1] This includes all the mammals and fish and dinosaurs and what-have-you that ever inhabited the earth, but it excludes things like bacteria and krill. And we are talking about piss here, so sweat is not included nor water sifting through the gills of fish or passing through the mouths of whales. If we would include those latter forms of water that have also passed through bodies of vertebrates, the answer is bound to be hundreds of times as high. We are also talking about ‘human-like’ piss, meaning that if it is diluted or concentrated relative to us, we are looking for human-equivalence terms.

My best guess next Monday.


[1] Why the use of the word ‘atom’ here? Well, because it turns out that water molecules continuously break up and mingle their atoms with other molecules. Hence your average water molecule isn’t stable or all that old. But the atoms making up a water molecule will not be new and not be subject to continuous break-down and rejuvenation, at least if we stick to the usual convention of not counting the sharing and pass-through of electrons as somehow creating new atoms.

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Pappinbarra Fox
Pappinbarra Fox
9 years ago

Actually it is not reconstituted piss in fact quite the opposite. But I would venture to say that every inland town in Australia drinks recycled water that has come out of the treatment system of the town upstream. You know what they say – a river cleans itself every 1.8 miles.

Andy McNabb
Andy McNabb
9 years ago

It is recycled piss. But piss is nowhere as dangerous as shit. Many a WW1 soldier in the desert campaigns set up a jam tin full of pure desert sand, pissed into it (many times) and many hours later enjoyed a slightly off taste but clean drink of water.

Try doing that with shit. Shit is among one of the most dangerous substances to humans.

What is this bullshit that a river cleans itself every 1.8 miles. Try that in Papua New Guinea (where I live). I drank from a picture perfect stream, only to contract typhoid 24 hours later. Some 80,000 shit in the stream, some as far as 120km upstream.

The people of POOWOOMBA (SE Queensland) are up in small arms about recycled poo water.

The scientists tell us that the volume of water now on the earth is precisely the same as when the earth was created by whoever the “creator of the earth” is this year.

Yes, it all gets recycled but human poo must be removed.

Pappinbarra Fox
Pappinbarra Fox
9 years ago

I did hear a lecture at Newcastle Town hall by David Suzuki where he suggested that everyone in the room was breathing oxygen that Julius Caesar had breathed, such was the mixing process.

Elise
Elise
9 years ago

The main issue with recycled water, as I understand it, is that human effluent contains pathogens, which in an ideal world can be destroyed by a perfectly functioning wastewater treatment plant. Some of those pathogens, if imbibed in sufficient quantities can make you very ill. I studied wastewater treatment, so this isn’t a hypothesis.

The problem, speaking as a process engineer, is that human beings have never managed to create perfect processing plants, with no equipment failures and no human operational errors.

The risk could be avoided three ways – Don’t do it (use treated water only on parks and gardens), or Design the risk out, or have a good Plan B for when failure inevitably occurs.

Let’s say that water shortages don’t allow the first (best) option in terms of risk. Plan B (worst option) in the case of wastewater treatment, would be that large numbers of people swamp the local emergency clinics. In some cases, e.g. a major plant failure, or people with less robust constitutions, the outcome could be seriously non-optimal…

That leaves Design it out, e.g. by reinjecting the treated water into the aquifer, or processing it through a large monitored wetlands. Either would give a substantial residence time to kill pathogens, and thus avoid plant failures delivering unsafe water straight into our drinking water supply.

My 2 cents worth: I wouldn’t trust any engineer that tells you that they have designed a “100% failure-free” processing plant. I’d be arguing very strongly that treated human effluent should always be thoroughly isolated from drinking water, using long residence time secondary processing, as a prudent measure for risk mitigation.

JM
JM
9 years ago

Paul, this issue is not so much the recycled bit, as the recycling process itself. It has often been put to me that if you live in London the water out of your tap has been recycled 3x upriver on the Thames. And therefore why should we care about recycled water out of Werribee.

Now I can speak to this, because I once worked on a sewage automation project and had all this stuff explained to me.

Werribee and the Thames are two rather different situations. The function of the sewage plants on the Thames is to remove remove rubbish and solid wastes (aka sludge) from the water to make it safe to go back in the river. NOT to make it safe to drink.

This water is NOT safe to drink (although politicians sometimes are photographed taking small sips). It still contains between 3-6% shit.

The thing is that the shit concentration is low enough that it doesn’t poison the river. After the water is put back into the river, the river takes care of the rest of the recycling process, via weeds, fish, and other biological processes.

No drinking water is then further abstracted from the river for around 10 miles downstream of a sewage treatment plant. That allows the waste water to be diluted by the river and the biological processes to clean enough of it up to make it safe to drink.

Werribee operates on similar principles, except that the slightly toxic waste water is dumped out to sea.

So people are quite right to be concerned about drinking waste water (“recycled”) from Werribee. It just isn’t safe. There is no river to do the last bit of the recycling.

Now there is a second kind of recycled water – such as that produced in Singapore. This stuff is highly purified in a very expensive manufacturing facility and is very, very clean. It is very expensive water, some estimates run as high as $5 a litre, but the actual price is kept secret by the government.

This is very clean water, and is valued as input to various high-tech processes such as the fabrication of silicon chips. Since it is expensive water, that’s about it’s only market. (The Singapore government has made a show of using a small percentage of the production as drinking water, but the economics and actual fraction concerned is pretty opaque, so nobody is quite sure how much is being actually used for drinking purposes.)

Don’t confuse the two alternatives. The Thames/Werribee stuff is cheap, can be obtained in bulk, but isn’t safe at the exit point of the plant.

The Singapore stuff is safe at the exit point of the plant, but is very expensive and only available in relatively small quantities.

Jolly
Jolly
9 years ago
Reply to  JM

Agree with your “Thames/Werribee stuff” & “Singapore stuff” … ie scientifically correct.
Those Singaporeans have nothing … no natural resources, very little natural rain water, almost negligible agricultural or farm land, tiny land mass, feudal political system and threateningly surrounded by Malaysia & Indonesia with Muslim ideology. YET it has a thriving economy, an excellent education system (minus sporting excellence), has one of the world best medical facilities, with a highly educated population that is also cosmopolitan. Little rain water, yet it is a “Garden City” with greenery at every nook and corner amidst the towering sky scrapers. Has one of the most efficient, modern and reliable mass transport system in the developed world. Crime is minimal, littering and graffiti is unheard of, and its shopping splendour can easily compete with Fifth Avenue (NY).

Why so? I am jealous!

SJ
SJ
9 years ago

The number of times “the atoms in the average water molecule will have been part of the piss coming out of a vertebrate” is pretty much a completely irrelevant question. It doesn’t matter in the least whether you can demonstrate that the water molecules in a bottle of Perrier must have been through a camel a gazillion times in the past – there’s no “aha, got ya” moment to be had there.

Firstly, it’s not a cumulative effect. If you hand me a glass of urine, I’m not going to drink it, even if you can prove it’s the first time that it’s ever been through a vertebrate.

Secondly, it’s not about the water molecules. They’re completely unchanged by having been through a vertebrate. It’s about the other stuff, not the water.

How hard is this to understand?

And why the focus on urine? Urine from a healthy human is fairly sterile. Excrement, even from a healthy human, is not. The real question is “exactly how many human pathogens and what kind are they in my water”. The answer to this question is completely independent of the one you’re asking.

SJ
SJ
9 years ago

BTW, Paul, you could rewrite your idea as follows:

“Some people don’t want to smoke cigarettes, but really they’re ignorant fools. The very air that they’re breathing was once (or maybe ten billion times) mixed with cigarette smoke in the lungs of a smoker!!!!”

emess
emess
9 years ago

Ok, Just for the exercise.

Assume an average density of 1000 invertebrates per square kilometre.
Assume that those invertebrates pass an average of 50 mL of urine per day.

That is .05 cubic metres per day per square kilometre, or 0.05mm depth. Annualised that is 18mm.

Average rainfall for Australia is say 420mm per year.
Assume that since urine droppeth from above like rain, and rainfall is the major source of both riverine and groundwater(originally) supplies, one can proportion rain and urine to arrive at the proportion of urine in drinking water.

So urine on this back of the envelope figure would be (1800/420)%=4% (approx).

Pappinbarra Fox
Pappinbarra Fox
9 years ago

Singapore literally does not waste a single drop of water if it can be helped. Through the marvels of modern desalination technologies and more than a little desperation (Singapore imports less than half the population’s water from Malaysia with agreements set to expire in 2012 and 2061), this little patch of land recycles and conserves almost all rainfall and water reserves (including non-potable waste water) to produce NeWater, a high-purity H2O that can be used for industrial development and even drinking. Gross but true.

FDB
FDB
9 years ago

SJ:

“How hard is this to understand?”

People are idiots. How is this hard to understand?

The normal dam water most of us drink has birds, fish and countless invertebrates living, dying and shitting in it before it gets to us. Rainwater tanks are runoff from a usually birdshit-encrusted roof. Botulism anyone?

But we don’t get sick much from scheme water or from tank water. The risks are small. Some people just find a reason to worry and feel grossed out wherever they can.

Dick England
Dick England
9 years ago

“Some people just find a reason to worry and feel grossed out wherever they can.”
Don’t be too hard on these people who are being silly. Rather than being sensible and educated, they’ve been turned into idiots by journalists and others pressing their emotional buttons for profit.

JM
JM
9 years ago

FDB. Recycled sewage is not safe period. It has to be put back into the environment first so that the natural water cycle, either in rivers or in the sea can dilute it further and clean it up.

What Singapore is doing is producing high quality, high cost water that is mostly used for hi-tech manufacturing. You can drink it because it is even cleaner than our drinking water. Think of it as distilled water.

But it is very expensive, and obtainable only in relatively low volumes.

Plants like Werribee have two and sometimes three “stages”:

* primary treatment, this removes solids such as stones, dead cats and the like from the water and then puts it into large ponds which are actively stirred up to break up and distribute all the sludge (aka shite) through the water. Various biological processes kick in and break down the more dangerous stuff.

* secondary treatment where the water is first airated to promote a different set of biological process and then allowed to sit still and the sludge drops out. . The sludge is then separated and allowed to “ferment” in an oxygen free environment, this allows the bacteria and other agents to biologically break down the dangerous stuff so that the resulting sludge can be – after a few weeks – dumped at sea, used as fertiliser, baked into bricks (really! I don’t think people actually buy this stuff, but sludge disposal is a real problem and sewage engineers are always on the look out for creative uses for the stuff)

At this point relatively clear water is taken off the top of the pond. This has a sludge concentration of about 6%. If you take a glass of the stuff and put it on the shelf to settle overnight you’ll get a millimetre or two of ugly brown sediment at the bottom

This is not safe to drink in quantity. But this is what Werribee refer to as “recycled water”

In some plants there is also a tertiary stage where the water is sprayed over grass or stone ponds where it is further filtered. This reduces the sludge content to about 3%. This water is still not safe to drink. (Apparently this stage isn’t used at Werribee).

However the water is safe – whether secondary treated or tertiary treated – to return to the environment, either a river, the sea or as irrigation on crops. This further dilutes the effluent, and natural processes remove the remaining sludge.

The natural water cycle then takes over and the water becomes drinkable, either as clean river water or rain. The natural environment becomes a quartinary process. Without it the water is not safe.

What Singapore is doing is different. They are essentially distilling the water. That is an additional process after the normal sewage treatment. Distillation, not the natural world is Singapore’s quartinery process.

And it is very expensive.

So using water off the secondary or tertiary stages for irrigation (and terming it “recycled”) is perfectly viable and is already done.

Drinking the same water is madness.

Distilling that water like Singapore does is doable, but expensive. It is not economically viable to use as general purpose drinking water.

Two things. The man-in-the-street who objects to drinking Werribee water is intuitively right.

Second, those who talk about water molecules are missing the point.

Lastly, anybody who brings up London or Singapore doesn’t fully understand the processes involved.

emess
emess
9 years ago
Reply to  JM

To say that recycled water is unsafe is untrue. Period.

To say that the only sort of purification that is effective is to put it into a natural stream is also, frankly, voodoo. Such processes may improve water quality, but unlikely to produce potable quality water under present Australian Drinking Water Guidelines. Just as one example, you could pull water out of the River Murray and it would not be suitable for potable drinking water under those Guidelines.

Given that there are birds, fish, snakes, lizards, the occasional human etc etc etc depositing into almost any stream in Australia, the fiction that we are drinking anything other than recycled water needs to be exposed as such. Fiction. By all means, check out the number of e coli squirted out by the average duck in a day, and then try to say that any water sourced from a water body with ducks on is not on a par with recycled water is to boggle the imagination.

Furthermore, when you talk about recycled water, we need to talk about Australian Guidelines. Water may be recycled for various purposes after different degrees of treatment. For example, water recycled for industrial uses may be treated to a lesser degree than water recycled for drinking. However, returning tertiary treated water to the environment does not ensure it is suitable for potable reuse. The reason for this is that environmental treatment simply is not good enough to produce potable water- either for recycled water, or for water from any water body which has ducks, lizards, etc etc etc providing ‘input’. Simply not on under current Australian Drinking Water Guidelines – it must be treated further for potable used.

BTW, Sewage is the liquid that is carried by the sewERage pipes and pumping stations.

FDB is essentially correct.

http://www.nhmrc.gov.au/guidelines/publications/eh52
http://www.ephc.gov.au/taxonomy/term/39

JM
JM
9 years ago
Reply to  emess

Emiss

You are wrong. All the water delivered to household taps in London via the London Tunnel Ring Main is abstracted from the Thames just outside the M25.

That water comes from the river and is mixed with treated water at several spots upriver. Thames Water absolutely rely on the joint effects of dilution and processing through the river reeds and other life to clean it up at the last stage.

The treated water they dump in the Thames upstream is not strong enough to kill the river, that’s why they treat it first. In fact , it’s somewhat beneficial as the remaining solids act as nutrients and fertiliser.* The river grass is always more abundant at the outfall of a treatment plant.

That river grass then removes the waste and biologically cleans it.

Weeribbee uses the sea for the same purpose. (And for the 40% of it that they “recycle” is largely put on crops*. The crops do the final recycling and the clean water makes its way either to the nearest river or the sea.

However, you wouldn’t want to drink the stuff coming out of Werribee. I remember taking a tour of a treatment plant once (in the UK) with a mixed group who included some local councillors and a photographer from the local paper. The photographer induced the councillors to take a sip of the outfall water.

The sewerage chemist I was with leaned over to me and whispered “don’t drink it”. He emptied his Sprite bottle, took a sample and handed it to me saying “put that on your desk and look at it tomorrow morning”.

Sure enough, next morning, there was an ugly sediment at the bottom of the bottle.

Thanks for correcting me on the distinction between sewerage and sewerage. I can never remember it.

But I’m a bit confused when you essentially confirm my point about further treatment being needed for potable (thanks again for correcting my terminology) water, but then turn around and say FDB is correct. Why?

* BTW treated sludge which is pretty nasty stuff is commonly used as fertiliser and sprayed on crops. It’s safe for that purpose, but you wouldn’t eat it.

emess
emess
9 years ago
Reply to  JM

Hi,

Very sorry, but….:)

Water from the Thames is all screened, filtered and disinfected before being classed as potable.

http://www.thameswater.co.uk/cycles/

You are right, however, that before it gets to the potable water intakes, there is riverine treatment. However, that riverine treatment is not sufficient to make it potable. That was one of my points, and I am sorry if it was not clear.

I should also like to admit my personal bias in this matter. I believe that natural processes (which tend to have low carbon footprints, as well as being much cheaper to operate than hi-tech plants such as activated sludge, IDAL, DAF/CAS etc), should really be the first choice for treatment where feasible. Processes such as occur in waste stabilisation ponds, constructed wetlands and SAT (Soil Aquifer Treatment) mimic the processes in natural streams and lakes, and have the advantage that they produce more reliable outcomes if managed and designed properly. (For example the end result of a train of waste stabilisation ponds and wetlands produces an effluent within a much tighter band than just dumping the raw (or partly treated) sewage in a natural stream. Not to mention the reduced load on the poor stream. :)

My concern is, that if we want to use natural processes, the information going out has to be correct.

If you are interested in how scientists (mainstream) are working on the use of natural processes to treat water in wetlands, here is somewhere to look:

http://sws2012.com/ – these guys are the wetland scientists.

To see how engineers have used some of the processes in the good ole NT, here:

http://pwc-new.squiz.net/__data/assets/pdf_file/0003/2010/Water_reuse_in_the_Alice_-_Soil_Aquifer_Treatment_-_May_2008.pdf

And just to show how mainstream some of these engineered versions of natural processes are:

http://www.clw.csiro.au/research/urban/reuse/projects/soil_aquifer_alicesprings.html

But we do have to get our facts right – the story of engineering processes using mimicking of natural processes is a good one in its own right.

JM
JM
9 years ago

Oh another point. One thing to remember about London and the Thames is that the waste water coming into their plants is not as concentrated as ours.

In the UK storm water, kitchen waste water etc is reticulated through the same pipes as sewerage. So the stuff coming into the treatment plants is already diluted (this is actually a problem for the water authorities there because the plants can be overwhelmed by volume during heavy rains and they sometimes have to discharge raw sewerage from their storage ponds)

In Australia, however sewerage is reticulated separately from storm water.

What this means is that Werribbee receives the stuff in concentrated form – ie.direct from your toilet. Hence I would suspect that the sludge content of the runoff from Werribbee is more concentrated than that in London and more dangerous. I can’t speak with any personal knowledge on this point however.

SJ
SJ
9 years ago

A further point about desalination. It’s basically a type of filtration, not distillation. It filters out ions, like salt, and it also filters out large molecules. Anything as huge as a bacterium certainly can’t get though it.

You can use it on seawater, as is done in Singapore as people have noted above, but is also done in Queensland, New South Wales, Western Australia, Victoria and soon South Australia.

The thing is, you could also use it on river water, or sewage, and it would cost way less to process those types of feedstocks than seawater. The major operating cost of desalination is running the high pressure pumps needed to overcome osmotic pressure. River water and processed sewage doesn’t have anywhere near the concentration of solutes that seawater has, so doesn’t require anywhere near as much pressure to push through the filter.

JM
JM
9 years ago

SJ, just a point. “Newater” in Singapore IS recycled sewage, not desalinated seawater.

Yeah they do use filtration techniques (microfiltration and reverse osmosis) – I used “distilled” as a shorthand for those processes which are equally effective in producing high quality water.

But the source comes from conventional sewage treatment, and the plant to further purify the water is expensive.

If we wanted to use Werribee water, we would have to build a similar plant. But we decided to go with desalination. I suspect because desalination is cheaper.

Check the wiki page

NEWater is the brand name given to reclaimed water produced by Singapore’s Public Utilities Board. More specifically, it is treated wastewater (sewage) that has been purified using dual-membrane (via microfiltration and reverse osmosis) and ultraviolet technologies, in addition to conventional water treatment processes. The water is potable and is consumed by humans, but is mostly used for industry requiring high purity water

.

JM
JM
9 years ago

BTW it might be useful to review the very good wiki page on this stuff.

It has a nice diagram, clearly showing the natural environment as the final stage. No it’s not “voodoo”.

There’s also an interesting comment in the “Treatment in the receiving environment” section towards the end:

Consequently, in cases where the receiving environment provides a high level of dilution, a high degree of wastewater treatment may not be required. However, recent evidence has demonstrated that very low levels of specific contaminants in wastewater, including hormones (from animal husbandry and residue from human hormonal contraception methods) and synthetic materials such as phthalates that mimic hormones in their action, can have an unpredictable adverse impact on the natural biota and potentially on humans if the water is re-used for drinking water.

Lastly the opening paragraph makes reference to the use of recycled sewage in Singapore:

Using advanced technology it is now possible to re-use sewage effluent for drinking water, although Singapore is the only country to implement such technology on a production scale in its production of NEWater.

No-one I’ve ever heard in this country has suggested the expensive, hi-tech Singapore solution. Most of the chestbeaters on this issue seem to regard effluent water from Werribbee as “absolutely ok for drinking” and “cheap as chips”

It is not both. It is either not ok. Or it is expensive. Take you pick

JM
JM
9 years ago

Look this is very simple to put in a nutshell.

Apart from Singapore, where in the world does anybody, any town, draw their water immediately “downstream” of their sewage treatment plant?

Nowhere. It’s not safe.

And the only place that does – Singapore – treats that water in a unique hi-tech facility that produces very expensive water – albeit very clean – that is largely used in specialist hi-tech manufacturing. Singapore makes a show of putting some of that water into general use for drinking.

But it’s a cosmetic exercise. It’s not economically viable.

Paul Frijters
Paul Frijters
9 years ago

I am with emess and FDK on the recycling debate: one cannot avoid drinking water that has been recently mixed with shit and piss. The question is not one of recycling versus natural but rather degrees of purification. So it is important to address this ‘yuk factor’ head on.

I also just approved a sizeable set of comments that the spam filter picked up. It is probably the fault of the title of the post that so many got caught by that filter.

Pappinbarra Fox
Pappinbarra Fox
9 years ago

Andy, you really dont get irony do you?
What is this bullshit that a river cleans itself every 1.8 miles. Try that in Papua New Guinea (where I live).
AND you drink from a river that 80,000 people shit into – no sewage just straight shit. Not too bright there, and I say that as a PNG “bada”. What was the stream a “perfect picture” of I wonder?
I drank from a picture perfect stream, only to contract typhoid 24 hours later. Some 80,000 shit in the stream, some as far as 120km upstream.

Misting nozzles
9 years ago

Australia needs to grow up. We are living in a world where there are many a problems and water shortage is one of the bigger ones. It’s high time, Australians started consuming recycled piss.

Dean Ashby
8 years ago

If you think about it, we are always drinking someone’s piss. Water, including piss, gets evaporated and comes back down, goes into our rivers and other water storage bodies and then into our taps. In this sense, all of us have drunk each other’s piss so many times in our lives anybody who can actually give a number is quite a genius. I suppose it’s always a good idea to have some sort of a “self storage” for our water supply in Australia as clean drinkable water becomes more and more precious. This means yes, having to recycle water which isn’t as yucky as many people imagine as nature has already done it since time began. As it is, it is an expensive procedure to find all sorts of storage for clean drinkable water so why not recycle what is there?

Chris
Chris
8 years ago

Assuming 7 billion people averaging 1 liter per 24 hours…it would take over 5000 years to produce a volume of piss equal to just Lake Superior. Granted there are animals too, but theirs generally goes into the ground, not into sewers. The point is that all the piss in the world for a long time comes nowhere near the total volume of water on earth.