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Sewage Treatment

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Adapted from 3rd edition, Encyclopaedia of Occupational Health and Safety.

Waste water is treated in order to remove pollutants and to comply with the limits set by law. For this purpose an attempt is made to render the pollutants in the water insoluble in the form of solids (e.g., sludge), liquids (e.g., oil) or gases (e.g., nitrogen) by applying appropriate treatments. Well known techniques are then used to separate the treated waste water to be returned to the natural waterways from the pollutants rendered insoluble. The gases are dispersed into the atmosphere, while the liquid and solid residues (sludge, oil, grease) are usually digested before being submitted to further treatment. There may be single or multi-stage treatments according to the characteristics of the waste water and to the degree of purification required. Waste water treatment may be subdivided into physical (primary), biological (secondary) and tertiary processes.

Physical Processes

The various physical treatment processes are designed to remove insoluble pollutants.


The sewage is made to pass through screens which retain coarse solids that may block or damage the treatment works equipment (e.g., valves and pumps). The screenings are processed according to local situations.

Sand removal

The sand contained in the waste water has to be removed as it tends to settle in the pipework on account of its high density and cause abrasion to the equipment (e.g., centrifugal separators and turbines). Sand is generally removed by passing the waste water through a channel of constant cross-section at a velocity of 15 to 30 cm/s. The sand collects on the channel bottom and may be used, after washing to remove putrescible matter, as an inert material, such as for road building.

Oil removal

Oils and non-emulsifiable fats have to be removed because they would adhere to the equipment of the treatment works (e.g., basins and clarifiers) and interfere with the subsequent biological treatment. Oil and fat particles are made to collect on the surface by passing the waste water at an appropriate velocity through tanks of rectangular cross-section; they are skimmed off mechanically and may be used as a fuel. Multi-plate separators of compact design and high efficiency are frequently used for oil removal: the sewage is made to pass from above through stacks of flat inclined plates; the oil adheres to the bottom surfaces of the plates and moves to the top where it is collected. With both these processes, the de-oiled water is discharged at the bottom.

Sedimentation, flotation and coagulation

These processes enable the solids to be removed from the waste water, heavy ones (greater than 0.4 μm in diameter) by sedimentation and light ones (less than 0.4 μm) by flotation. This treatment, too, relies on the differences in density of the solids and of the flowing waste water which is passed through sedimentation tanks and flotation tanks made of concrete or steel. The particles to be separated collect in the bottom or at the surface, settling or rising at velocities which are proportional to the square of the particle radius and to the difference between the particle density and the apparent waste water density. Colloidal particles (e.g., proteins, latexes and oily emulsions) with sizes from 0.4 to 0.001 μm are not separated, as these colloids become hydrated and usually negatively charged by adsorption of ions. Consequently the particles repel each other so that they cannot coagulate and separate. However, if these particles are “destabilized”, they coagulate to form flocks greater than 4 μm, which can be separated as sludge in conventional sedimentation or flotation tanks. Destabilization is obtained by coagulation, that is, by adding 30 to 60 mg/l of an inorganic coagulant (aluminium sulphate, iron (II) sulphate or iron (III) chloride). The coagulant hydrolyses under given pH (acidity) conditions and forms positive polyvalent metal ions, which neutralize the negative charge of the colloid. Flocculation (the agglomeration of coagulated particles in flocks) is facilitated by adding 1 to 3 mg/l of organic polyelectrolytes (flocculation agents), resulting in flocks of 0.3 to 1 μm diameter which are easier to separate. Sedimentation tanks of the horizontal-flow type may be used; they have rectangular cross-section and flat or sloping bottoms. The waste water enters along one of the head sides, and the clarified water leaves over the edge at the opposite side. Also vertical flow sedimentation tanks can be used which are cylindrical in shape and have a bottom like an inverted right circular cone; the waste water enters in the middle, and the clarified water leaves the tank over the top indented edge to be collected into an external circumferential channel. With the two types of tank, the sludge settles on the bottom and is conveyed (if necessary by means of a raking gear) into a collector. The solids concentration in the sludge is 2 to 10%, whereas that of the clarified water is 20 to 80 mg/l.

The flotation tanks are usually cylindrical in shape and have fine bubble air diffusers installed in their bottoms, the sewage entering the tanks in the centre. The particles adhere to the bubbles, float to the surface and are skimmed off, while the clarified water is discharged below. In the case of the more efficient “dissolved-air floating tanks”, the waste water is saturated with air under a pressure of 2 to 5 bars and then allowed to expand in the centre of the floating tank, where the minute bubbles resulting from the decompression make the particles float to the surface.

Compared to sedimentation, flotation yields a thicker sludge at a higher particle separation velocity, and the equipment required is therefore smaller. On the other hand, the operating cost and the concentration of solids in the clarified water are higher.

Several tanks arranged in series are required for coagulating and flocculating a colloidal system. An inorganic coagulant and, if necessary, an acid or an alkali to correct the pH value are added to the waste water in the first tank, which is equipped with an agitator. The suspension is then passed into a second tank equipped with a high-speed agitator; here, the polyelectrolyte is added and dissolved within a few minutes. The flock growth takes place in a third tank with a slow-running agitator and is carried out for 10 to 15 minutes.

Biological Processes

Biological treatment processes remove organic biodegradable pollutants by use of micro-organisms. These organisms digest the pollutant by an aerobic or anaerobic process (with or without supply of atmospheric oxygen) and convert it into water, gases (carbon dioxide and methane) and a solid insoluble microbic mass which can be separated from the treated water. Especially in the case of industrial effluents proper conditions for the development of micro-organisms must be assured: presence of nitrogen and phosphorus compounds, traces of microelements, absence of toxic substances (heavy metals, etc.), optimum temperature and pH value. Biological treatment includes aerobic and anaerobic processes.

Aerobic processes

The aerobic processes are more or less complex according to the space available, the degree of purification required and the composition of the waste water.

Stabilization ponds

These are generally rectangular and 3 to 4 m deep. The sewage enters at one end, is left for 10 to 60 days and leaves the pond partly at the opposite end, partly by evaporation and partly by infiltration into the ground. The purification efficiency ranges from 10 to 90% according to the type of effluent and to the residual 5-day biological oxygen demand (BOD5) content (<40 mg/l). Oxygen is supplied from the atmosphere by diffusion through the surface of the water and from photosynthetic algae. The solids in suspension in the waste water and those produced by microbial activity settle on the bottom, where they are stabilized by aerobic and/or anaerobic processes according to the depth of the ponds which affects the diffusion both of oxygen and sunlight. The oxygen diffusion is frequently accelerated by surface aerators, which enable the volume of the ponds to be reduced.


This type of treatment is very economical if space is available, but requires clay-like soil to prevent the pollution of underground water by toxic effluents.

Activated sludge

This is used for an accelerated treatment carried out in concrete or steel tanks of 3 to 5 m depth where the waste water comes into contact with a suspension of micro-organisms (2 to 10 g/l) which is oxygenated by means of surface aerators or by blowing in air. After 3 to 24 hours, the mixture of treated water and micro-organisms is passed into a sedimentation tank where the sludge made up by micro-organisms is separated from the water. The micro-organisms are partly returned to the aerated tank and partly evacuated.

There are various types of activated-sludge processes (e.g., contact-stabilization systems and use of pure oxygen) which yield purification efficiencies of greater than 95% even for industrial effluents but they require accurate controls and high energy consumption for oxygen supply.

Percolating filters

With this technique the micro-organisms are not kept in suspension in the waste water, but adhere to the surface of a filling material over which the sewage is sprayed. Air circulates through the material and supplies the required oxygen without any energy consumption. According to the type of waste water and to increase efficiency, part of the treated water is recirculated to the top of the filter bed.

Where land is available, low-cost filling materials of appropriate size (e.g., crushed stone, clinker and limestone) are used, and on account of the weight of the bed the percolating filter is generally constructed as a 1 m high concrete tank usually sunk in the ground. If there is not enough land, more costly lightweight packing materials such as high-rate plastic honeycomb media, with up to 250 square metres of surface area/cubic metre of media, are stacked in percolating towers up to 10 m high.

The waste water is distributed over the filter bed by a mobile or fixed sparging mechanism and collected in the floor to be eventually recirculated to the top and to be passed into a sedimentation tank where the sludge formed can settle. Openings at the bottom of the percolating filter allow for air circulation through the filter bed. Pollutants removal efficiencies of 30 to 90% are achieved. In many cases several filters are arranged in series. This technique, which requires little energy and is easy to operate, has found widespread use and is recommended for cases where land is available, for instance, in developing countries.


A set of flat plastic discs mounted parallel on a horizontal rotating shaft are partially immersed in the waste water contained in a tank. Due to the rotation the biological felt that covers the discs is brought into contact with the effluents and atmospheric oxygen. The biological sludge coming off the biodiscs remains in suspension in the waste water, and the system acts as activated sludge and sedimentation tank at the same time. Biodiscs are suitable for small to medium-sized industrial factories and communities, take up little space, are easy to operate, require little energy and yield efficiencies of up to 90%.

Anaerobic processes

Anaerobic processes are carried out by two groups of micro-organisms—hydrolytic bacteria, which decompose complex substances (polysaccharides, proteins, lipids, etc.) to acetic acid, hydrogen, carbon dioxide and water; and methanogenic bacteria, which convert these substances to a biomass (that can be removed from the treated sewage by sedimentation) and to biogas containing 65 to 70% methane, the remainder being carbon dioxide, and having a high heat value.

These two groups of micro-organisms, which are very sensitive to toxic contaminants, act simultaneously in the absence of air at an almost neutral pH value, some requiring a temperature of 20 to 38oC (mesophilic bacteria) and other, more delicate ones, 60 to 65oC (thermophilic bacteria). The process is carried out in stirred, closed concrete or steel digesters, where the required temperature is held by thermostats. Typical is the contact process, where the digester is followed by a sedimentation tank to separate the sludge, which is partially recirculated to the digester, from the treated water.

Anaerobic processes need neither oxygen nor power for oxygen supply and yield biogas, which can be used as a fuel (low operating costs). On the other hand, they are less efficient than aerobic processes (residual BOD5: 100 to 1,500 mg/l), are slower and more difficult to control, but enable faecal and pathogenic micro-organisms to be destroyed. They are used for treating strong wastes, such as sedimentation sludge from sewage, sludge in excess from activated sludge or percolating-filter treatments and industrial effluents with a BOD5 up to 30,000 mg/l (e.g., from distilleries, breweries, sugar refineries, abattoirs and paper mills).

Tertiary Processes

The more complex and more expensive tertiary processes make use of chemical reactions or specific chemicophysical or physical techniques to remove water-soluble non-biodegradable pollutants, both organic (e.g., dyes and phenols) and inorganic (e.g., copper, mercury, nickel, phosphates, fluorides, nitrates and cyanides), especially from industrial waste water, because they cannot be removed by other treatments. Tertiary treatment also enables a high degree of water purification to be obtained, and the water thus treated may be used as drinking water or for manufacturing processes (steam generation, cooling systems, process water for particular purposes). The most important tertiary processes are as follows.


Precipitation is carried out in reactors made of an appropriate material and equipped with agitators where chemical reagents are added at a controlled temperature and pH value to convert the pollutant to an insoluble product. The precipitate obtained in the form of sludge is separated by conventional techniques from the treated water. In waste water from the fertilizer industry, for instance, phosphates and fluorides are rendered insoluble by reaction with lime at ambient temperature and at an alkaline pH; chromium (tanning industry), nickel and copper (electroplating shops) are precipitated as hydroxides at an alkaline pH after having been reduced with m-disulphite at a pH of 3 or lower.

Chemical oxidation

The organic pollutant is oxidized with reagents in reactors similar to those used for precipitation. The reaction is generally continued until water and carbon dioxide are obtained as final products. Cyanides, for instance, are destroyed at ambient temperature by adding sodium hypochlorite and calcium hypochlorite at alkaline pH, whereas azo- and anthraquinone-dyes are decomposed by hydrogen peroxide and ferrous sulphate at pH 4.5. Coloured effluents from the chemical industry containing 5 to 10% non-biodegradable organic substance are oxidized at 200 to 300°C at high pressure in reactors made of special materials by blowing air and oxygen into the liquid (wet oxidation); catalysts are sometimes used. Pathogens left in urban sewage after treatment are oxidized by chlorination or ozonisation to render the water drinkable.


Some pollutants (e.g., phenols in waste water from coking plants, dyes in water for industrial or drinking purposes and surfactants) are effectively removed by absorption on activated carbon powder or granules which are highly porous and have a large specific surface area (of 1000 m2/g or more). The activated carbon powder is added in metered quantities to the waste water in stirred tanks, and 30 to 60 minutes later the spent powder is removed as a sludge. Granulated activated carbon is used in towers arranged in series through which the polluted water is passed. The spent carbon is regenerated in these towers, that is, the absorbed pollutant is removed either by chemical treatment (e.g., phenols are washed out with soda) or by thermal oxidation (e.g., dyes).

Ion exchange

Certain natural substances (e.g., zeolites) or artificial compounds (e.g., Permutit and resins) exchange, in a stoichiometric and reversible manner, the ions bound to them with those contained, even strongly diluted, in the waste water. Copper, chromium, nickel, nitrates and ammonia, for instance, are removed from waste water by percolation through columns packed with resins. When the resins are spent, they are reactivated by washing with regenerating solutions. Metals are thus recovered in a concentrated solution. This treatment, though costly, is efficient and advisable in cases where a high degree of purity is required (e.g., for waste water contaminated by toxic metals).

Reverse osmosis

In special cases it is possible to extract water of high purity, suitable for drinking, from diluted waste water by passing it through semi-permeable membranes. On the waste water side of the membrane the pollutants (chlorides, sulphates, phosphates, dyes, certain metals) are left as concentrated solutions which have to be disposed of or treated for recovery. The diluted waste water is subjected to pressures up to 50 bars in special plant containing synthetic membranes made of cellulose acetate or other polymers. The operating cost of this process is low, and separation efficiencies of greater than 95% may be obtained.

Sludge Treatment

Rendering pollutants insoluble during waste water treatment results in the production of considerable amounts of sludge (20 to 30% of the removed chemical oxygen demand (COD) which is strongly diluted (90 to 99% water)). The disposal of this sludge in a manner acceptable to the environment presupposes treatments with a cost of up to 50% of those required for waste water purification. The types of treatment depend on the destination of the sludge, depending in turn on its characteristics and on local situations. Sludge may be destined for:

  • fertilization or dumping at sea if it is substantially free from toxic substances and contains nitrogen and phosphorus compounds (sludge from biological treatment), using fixed outfalls, lorries or barges
  • sanitary landfill into pits dug in the ground, alternating layers of sludge and soil. Impermeabilisation of peats is required if the sludge contains toxic substances that may be washed out by atmospheric precipitations. The pits should be remote from water-bearing strata. Non-stabilized organic sludge is usually mixed with 10 to 15% lime to retard putrefaction.
  • incineration in rotary or fluidized-bed furnaces if the sludge is rich in organic substances and free from volatile metals; if necessary, fuel is added, and the smoke emitted is purified.


The sludge is dewatered before its disposal to reduce both its volume and the cost of its treatment, and it is frequently stabilized to prevent its putrefaction and to render harmless any toxic substances it may contain.


Dewatering includes previous thickening in thickeners, similar to sedimentation tanks, where the sludge is left for 12 to 24 hours and loses part of the water which collects on the surface, while the thickened sludge is discharged below. The thickened sludge is dewatered, for example, by centrifugal separation or by filtration (under vacuum or pressure) with conventional equipment, or by exposure to the air in layers of 30 cm thick in sludge-drying beds consisting of rectangular concrete lagoons, approximately 50 cm deep, with a sloped bottom covered with a layer of sand to facilitate water drainage. Sludge containing colloidal substances should be previously destabilized by coagulation and flocculation, according to already described techniques.


Stabilization includes digestion and detoxification. Digestion is a long-term treatment of the sludge during which it loses 30 to 50% of its organic matter, accompanied by an increase in its mineral salt content. This sludge is no longer putrescible, any pathogens are destroyed and the filtrability is improved. Digestion may be of the aerobic type when the sludge is aerated during 8 to 15 days at ambient temperature in concrete tanks, the process being similar to activated-sludge treatment. It may be of the anaerobic type if the sludge is digested in plants similar to those used for the anaerobic waste treatment, at 35 to 40°C during 30 to 40 days, with the production of biogas. Digestion can be of the thermal type when the sludge is treated with hot air at 200 to 250°C and at a pressure of more than 100 bars during 15 to 30 minutes (wet combustion), or when it is treated, in the absence of air, at 180°C and at autogenous pressure, for 30 to 45 minutes.

Detoxification renders harmless sludge containing metals (e.g., chromium, nickel and lead), which are solidified by treatment with sodium silicate and autothermically converted into the corresponding insoluble silicates.



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