Clean Your Dirty Mind: Wastewater and Psychology

Cool, crisp, clean, clear water. In the hot summer days of August, there is nothing better. We run to the faucet or Brita Pitcher when temperatures reach over 100 degrees. Imagine a truly sizzling hot day, running for the tap, turning on the cold faucet and the water that comes out is not the regular water you are used to, but cleaned wastewater. As the name implies, cleaned wastewater is water that “has been used in your toilet or sink or shower is purified through a variety of technological processes that make it clean enough to drink” (Alix Spiegel, NPR Article)  Would you feel the same relief from the heat? Or would your mind stop you from enjoying the cool glass of water?

Some scholars say yes.  Dr. Carol Nemeroff, of the University of Southern Maine speculates that many people are not able to get over the “ick” factor of drinking water that could have previously been found in their toilet. The scientific term, contagion, refers to the phenomenon of people thinking that once something has contact with another thing, those two things are always joined. In this case, water and your toilet.  Significant research of over 2,000 people suggests that it is difficult for people to dispel this kind of thinking; regardless of if it is scientifically proven that the cleaned wastewater is safe for consumption.

Therefore, getting Americans on board for the use of wastewater as drinking water may involve less science, and more psychology. The key it seems is to change the identity of the filtered water by connecting it closer to nature. As water reuse expert Dr. Haddad says, people feel more comfortable if the treated water sits in an underground aquifer for a significant period of time. However, this brings up additional problems, as exposing already treated water back to nature can have negative effects on the quality of the water.

It is clear that our water thinking has a significant impact on the way water is used and distributed in this country. Now that we have the science to turn wastewater into drinkable water, we need to find a way to change its identity so that people no longer have visions of drinking water formally found in the bottom of a bath tub or toilet bowl.