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Human and environmental health risks and benefits associated with use of urban stormwater

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For stormwater harvesting to achieve its full potential in mitigating water scarcity problems and restoring stream health, it is necessary to evaluate the human and environmental health risks and benefits associated with it. Stormwater harbors large amounts of pollutants and has traditionally been viewed as a leading cause of water‐quality degradation of receiving waters. Harvesting stormwater for household use raises questions of human exposure to pollutants, especially human pathogens, which have the potential to cause large‐scale disease outbreaks. These issues are compounded by uncertainties relating to the performance of stormwater treatment technologies in pathogen removal. Quantitative microbial risk assessment provides an objective risk estimate based on scientific data and the best assumptions, which can be used to educate and instil confidence in stakeholders of the practice. Although limited, human health risk studies have positively supported the use of minimally treated rainwater and stormwater for some non‐potable applications. In addition to the well‐known benefit of preserving the stream hydrology and ecology, wetlands used for harvesting stormwater can also provide new habitats for wildlife that benefit environmental health. A fundamental change from viewing stormwater as waste to resource requires the coordinated efforts in research, education, and effective communication. WIREs Water 2015, 2:683–699. doi: 10.1002/wat2.1107

Schematic illustration of route of human exposure to stormwater pollutants during different stormwater use. Inhalation of aerosols during laundering, showering, toilet flushing, car washing, lawn and home garden irrigation represents the major route of human exposure to pollutants carried in the stormwater, while consumption of fresh produce irrigated by stormwater exposes human to pollutants through ingestion. Secondary transmission during person‐to‐person contact also contributes to an important portion of human exposure.
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Schematic illustration of urban stormwater generation and harvesting scenarios. Precipitation or irrigation runoff from impervious surface is collected either directly to underground storm channels through street gutters (a) or infiltrated through sandfilters/biofilters (b) and entering the channels through the perforated underdrains (c). The close approximation between sanitary sewer lines and underground storm channels may cause cross contamination of stormwater with sewage due to aging infrastructure, poor design and poor implementation (d). Stormwater harvesting is achieved by piping the stormwater from main channel (e) to retention/treatment systems such as artificial wetlands and recharge basin.
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