Environment Picture

Dogs know it when they smell it— Michigan business uses innovative team to track sewage contamination

Dogs have had jobs ever since they started hanging out with humans: Protect the sheep. Haul the sled. Keep rats out of the grain.

These days pooches are punching the clock in some pretty sophisticated careers. They help people with disabilities navigate daily challenges. They track down missing persons. Their sharp noses can sniff out drugs, bombs—even cancer.

Then there’s Kenna, a two-year-old golden retriever from East Lansing. Kenna’s job is…well. Here’s a quote from the website of Environmental Canine Services, the company that employs Kenna: “Our scent trained canines provide a rapid means for detecting and source tracking human sewage contamination in stormwater systems, streams, rivers, lakes, and oceans.”

Rat-catching is looking better and better.

Still, unpleasant as her job might sound, Kenna loves it, according to her handler, Laura Symonds, a professor of neuroscience at Michigan State University when she’s not out in the field.

“Kenna is really motivated to do this work,” Symonds said. “She gets really excited when it’s time to go to work.”

A broken system for septics
Kenna has a job because our infrastructure is in bad shape. Failing municipal sewer systems in urban areas and septic systems in suburban and rural regions are major sources of human sewage contamination that can make waterways unsafe for recreation and can even taint drinking water supplies. Exposure to E. coli and other pathogens in the sewage can trigger potentially serious infections and gastrointestinal illnesses.

Toxic algae outbreaks fueled by excess phosphorus have brought about important steps in recent years to ratchet down nutrient pollution from agricultural sources and from Michigan’s municipal sewer systems. Detroit, for instance, is undergoing a major overhaul to reduce the huge amounts of raw and partially treated sewage it dumps into the Great Lakes system after heavy rains.

But little has been done to keep septic systems from polluting our waters with pathogens and nutrients. Michigan is the only state without a uniform sanitary code regulating septic systems, despite having an estimated 1.3 million septics and an economy and way of life built on clean water. More than half of single-family homes built in Michigan today are not connected to a public wastewater utility and require a septic system, yet the state lacks a central system for tracking where they are and when they were last inspected.

Instead, septic regulation falls to county health departments. Of Michigan’s 83 counties, 11 require inspection of septic systems when property is sold. In the rest of the state, septics are only required to be inspected when they’re first installed, despite general recommendations that they be inspected every three years, pumped out every three to five years and replaced every 20 years.

Properly maintained, septics provide a relatively simple way to treat sewage from homes and businesses not connected to city systems. But there’s alarming evidence that Michigan’s weak approach to septic regulation isn’t working. For example:
  • By a conservative estimate, Michigan has about 130,000 failed septics discharging some 31 million gallons of sewage every day.
  • A major study led by Michigan State University recently found bacteria indicating the presence of human fecal matter in every one of the 64 Lower Peninsula river systems sampled. The analysis showed that septics were the primary source of the pollution.
  • In the first seven years of a septic inspection program in Barry and Eaton counties, the health department found almost 1,000 failed systems. More shockingly, inspectors found 300 homes that weren’t connected to a septic system at all, and were dumping raw sewage directly into nearby water bodies. 
Aside from the health risks, sewage pollution casts a shadow over Michigan’s $23 billion tourism industry. It can push recreational waters out of compliance with state and federal water quality standards, leading to all-too-common beach closures that tarnish the state’s image as a destination for water-based recreation.

To stop sewage contamination, you need to be able to track down its sources. And that can be expensive. Health departments try to keep a handle on it, “but in many areas, they’re not out there sampling very frequently,” said Jonathon Beard, a consultant on water pollution issues for Public Sector Consultants in Lansing. “Like any agency, they have limited resources.”

On the job
That’s where Environmental Canine Services comes in. Husband and wife Scott and Karen Reynolds, who between them have about 45 years of dog training and handling experience, started the company in 2009 when they were living in the Lansing area. Scott’s work for an environmental engineering firm included water quality fieldwork and sampling from streams and ditches. Recognizing that canines could provide a low-cost first line of defense for identifying contamination, Scott piloted a training program and sewage scent-tracking methods with Sable, a rescued German shepherd mix.

“And that was really successful, so we decided to go ahead and open our own company,” Karen Reynolds said. She rescued and trained another dog—Logan, a collie mix—and the company was up and running. “We use the same principles that are used for search and rescue and narcotics. You let the dog know what scent you want them to find, and make it fun and rewarding for them.”

Scott, Karen, Sable and Logan relocated to Maine last year. They have two more dogs in training and work throughout New England and the East Coast. They also have Midwest and West Coast teams based in Michigan and California. It is, as far as they know, the only company of its kind in the world.

Essentially, the dogs provide a screening tool. They work their way up contaminated drains or streams and alert their handlers—by barking or sitting, for example—when they detect sewage. Their findings save money for local governments and watershed groups by helping them narrow in on the problem before they order more expensive testing to confirm the source.

The dogs are good at what they do. Researchers from the University of California, Santa Barbara, worked with the City of Santa Barbara and Environmental Canine Services in 2010, and compared Logan and Sable’s findings to high-tech lab results. The study found that, when lab tests confirmed human sewage was present, Logan detected it 100 percent of the time, and Sable was 86 percent accurate. And there were no false negatives, meaning when the dogs didn’t detect contamination, the lab results confirmed there was none.

“One of the researchers concluded that there may be times when our dogs are able to detect the presence of human sewage at a level that their technology can’t pick up,” Reynolds said.

The study’s authors concluded that “canine scent tracking is a tool that should be expanded for use by researchers and stormwater managers.” The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also have reviewed and approved the company’s approach as an effective tool for tracking sources of human sewage contamination.

And, Reynolds said, it’s significantly cheaper than those high-tech testing methods. For example, “ship and sniff” service, where clients mail samples for testing at the company’s facilities, costs about $40 per sample.
Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council, an MEC member group, hired the company in 2014 to help sort out whether sewage was leaking into the stormwater systems in the cities of Petoskey and Charlevoix. It was a lot easier than earlier sampling efforts, said Kevin Cronk, monitoring and research director for Tip of the Mitt.

“We had done limited monitoring, which was both expensive and arduous,” he said. “You have to be out there when it rains, often late at night, and it’s grueling work.”

Karen Reynolds and Logan worked with Tip of the Mitt to identify contamination at stormwater outfalls. They worked up the drains from those sites and detected hotspots that are now being examined with follow-up testing.

“It’s a really neat approach,” Cronk said. “I think it’s a useful tool because it’s so inexpensive.”

‘Infinitely interesting’
Since earning certification from Environmental Canine Services in June, Kenna and Symonds have been on five jobs together.

The work is “infinitely interesting” and has deepened the bond between animal and handler, Symonds said. “I love the puzzle of it all. There is information the client needs to know, and neither Kenna nor I individually can solve the puzzle. But if we work together, each providing knowledge that our own species is specialized to acquire, we can provide information that could be got no other way, at least at the present time.”

As a scientist, Symonds couldn’t help but conduct some research on what makes dogs such strong sniffers. She’s been astounded by what she’s learned. For instance, while the human nose has roughly five million scent-detecting olfactory neurons, a retriever like Kenna has about 220 million. Dog nostrils work individually, providing the olfactory equivalent of stereo sound and allowing them to determine from which direction a smell is coming. And as dogs inhale, the air is separated into two pathways—one for breathing and one built just for smelling.

That specialized anatomy enables dogs to distinguish individual smells. If you came home from work to smell beef stew cooking, your brain would think, “beef stew.” Kenna’s brain would think, “beef, carrots, onion, potatoes, flour, pepper and salt.” That talent for scent-discrimination is what allows canines to distinguish human waste from animal manure.

Changes on the way
Symonds said she’s also been surprised by what she’s learned about the problem she and Kenna are out to help solve.

“I am shocked at how common it is,” she said. “Aging septic tanks are located all across the country, with many, many here in Michigan.”

Many Michiganders are not aware that failing septics are a huge problem for the state’s water quality. And many rural homeowners may be unaware of how their septic systems can contribute to the problem, Beard said.

“I grew up in an urban area,” he said. “If I moved to a rural area and had a septic tank, I wouldn’t necessarily know how they need to be maintained.”

Educating people about the importance of septic inspections and maintenance can go a long way, but ultimately, policy changes are needed to truly tackle the septic problem, Beard said.

There is reason to be hopeful those changes could happen soon. The state’s new 30-year water strategy (see pages 10-12) calls on the Michigan Legislature to establish inspection requirements for septics and to develop and implement a statewide sanitary code by 2020. MEC has voiced support for those recommendations, but is urging state leaders to move ahead more quickly and put those policies on the books this legislative session.

Meanwhile, “I would encourage the health departments to do what they can,” Beard said, “because given the rules of the road right now, they are the ones with an opportunity to make a big difference.”

Septic care 101
Without proper care, your household septic system could pollute local streams and lakes, and could even contaminate your well water. These tips will help keep your system in good condition. 
  • First, find out if you have a septic system! Signs that you do include:
    • You use well water. 
    • There’s no meter on the water line coming into your home. 
    • Your neighbors are on septic systems.  
  • Have a professional inspect your septic system at least every three years. 
  • Be sure to pump out your septic tank when it’s nearly full—typically every three to five years. 
  • All the water that goes down your pipes ends up in the septic tank. Fill the tank more slowly by installing low-flow toilets, faucet aerators, high-efficiency showerheads and other water-saving products.
  • Don’t flush anything besides waste and toilet paper.
  • Avoid using chemical drain openers and don’t pour solvents or other toxic cleaners down the drain. They kill the microorganisms in your septic tank that digest and treat household waste.
  • Limit or eliminate the use of your garbage disposal.
  • Take proper care of your septic drainfield, which removes contaminants from the liquids that emerge from your septic tank. 
    • Don’t drive on it. 
    • Plant trees far enough away that roots don’t damage the septic system. 
    • Keep roof drains, sump pumps and other rainwater drainage systems away from your drainfield, since excess water interferes with the wastewater treatment process.
For More Information and Maintenance Tips
www.epa.gov/septicsmart
-Andy McGlashen
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