Making Snow With Recycled Sewage Could Breed Super Bacteria
It’s been a long time since snow was safe to eat. But if an Arizona resort goes through with its plan to make artificial snow out of sewage effluent (yes, you read that correctly) it might not even be safe to ski on. According to still-unpublished research, the wastewater recycling system could turn the mountain into a breeding ground for antibiotic-resistant genes.
Since Arizona is mostly desert, it’s no surprise that the Arizona Snowbowl resort depends on artificial snow to stay in business. Making fake snow is a costly endeavor, requiring millions of gallons of water in a state where water is an increasingly precious resource. To alleviate some of the demand, Arizona Snowbowl struck a deal with the City of Flagstaff: the resort agreed to buy 1.5 million gallons of wastewater per day from a local treatment plant at a better price than the treated water it had been using. In addition, the resort planned to construct a 15-mile pipeline to transport the water from the city to a reservoir on its property.
Normally, we’d applaud a move to recycle water instead of consuming more of the already depleted resource, even if it is for something as silly as making fake snow. Now, research out of Virginia Tech seems to indicate that environmental and Native American groups were right to warn that making snow out of sewage is dangerous for people and wildlife.
Although the number of antibiotic resistant genes was “relatively diminished” in water sourced from the treatment facility, their presence dramatically increased at the point of use, such as sprinkler heads, according to the report. “This means bacteria is growing in the distribution pipes,” said Amy Pruden, the study’s author and an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech. Note: the sprinkler heads are installed on the mountain and are the last thing the “snow” touches before landing on the slopes. Or your face. Antibiotic-resistant genes especially dangerous because they can impede the body’s ability to fight disease.
The study has not been published or peer-reviewed yet, but as the New York Times points out, Flagstaff officials are taking it seriously enough to have invited Dr. Pruden to serve on an advisory panel that the city formed last week. Apparently, the ski resort still plans to move forward with the snow-making effort.
“Scientists are now able to detect things in minute amounts that they were never able to detect before,” J.R. Murray, Snowbowl’s general manager, told the NYT. “That doesn’t mean those substances are harmful.”
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