EPA warns of health risk to families as half of septic tanks fail inspections

E Coli, which can cause serious illness, is present in almost a third of private wells

Half of the septic tanks serving one-off houses across the State have failed their annual safety inspection, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, which has warned that many now pose health risks.

Private drinking water supplies are also at risk of contamination given that half of sites which included a septic tank and private water well failed the review, according to the latest EPA report.

It has also warned that E Coli, which can cause serious illness, is present in almost a third of Irish private wells.

The agency’s national inspection plan shows 49 per cent of the more than 460,000 registered domestic septic tanks failed the inspection in 2016, up from 45 per cent in 2015, mainly due to a lack of proper operation and maintenance.


“Homeowners may be putting themselves, their families and their neighbours at risk of ill-health if they do not maintain their septic tank system adequately,” said Darragh Page, programme manager at the EPA’s Office of Environmental Enforcement.

A total of 1,110 inspections were carried out between January and December 2016. Of these, 544 septic tanks failed to pass the inspection and advisory notices were issued. Nearly a third of these failed due to a “risk to human health or the environment” which includes noise, odour, affects on water, soil, plants or animals. Some 29 per cent of sites failed due to operation and maintenance issues, while another 24 per cent failed the review because of a lack of de-sludging.

There are about 170,000 private drinking water wells across the State, many of which are susceptible to contamination, especially from on-site septic tank systems. More than half of the inspections carried out on sites with private wells failed, with de-sludging, operation and maintenance issues the main reasons for failure.

Mr Page encouraged homeowners to take a number of simple steps to protect themselves and their family and to ensure tanks are managed properly.

These include having the sludge emptied from the tank on a regular basis, using a permitted contractor and retaining the receipt. And, if the homeowner has a package treatment system, they should have it regularly serviced and keep a record of servicing, Mr Page said.

Irish Farmers’ Association chairman Thomas Cooney said a ring-fenced budget was needed to address the problem of septic tank failures and to help owners avail of support grants.

“At the moment, a homeowner can only avail of the remediation grant if they were inspected by the council,” said Mr Cooney.

“This must change. Homeowners who want to address septic tank issues should not have to wait for an inspection and should be able to pro-actively work with their local authority to address this risk to human and animal health.”

He said a question remains, regarding Government’s commitment to rural Ireland.

“While they are committed to identifying funds to address the 43 direct discharges by local authorities of thousands of gallons of sewage into our rivers and streams, their silence and lack of support for addressing domestic waste water challenges is unacceptable,” Mr Cooney said.

Sorcha Pollak

Sorcha Pollak

Sorcha Pollak is an Irish Times reporter and cohost of the In the News podcast