Wayne State University

When education is not enough: Wayne State University researcher examines septic system failure, critiques government response

DETROIT — Poorly maintained septic systems result in severely polluted bodies of water and contribute to tens of thousands of viral and bacterial illnesses each year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The dominant response by state and local governments across the U.S. has been to establish numerous education programs, with the expectation that instruction will lead to better maintenance by households.

A Wayne State University researcher of environmental planning, however, argues that this response is insufficient; he has identified a need for more state-established regulations that can lead to better septic system maintenance by households.

Rayman Mohamed, Ph.D., associate professor in WSU’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning and resident of Detroit, recently published an article in the International Journal of Sustainable Development and Planning. The article outlines the reasons for and consequences of septic tank failure while critiquing the reliance on education as the primary policy response.

“I am interested in this question not only because it is important to understand the proximate reasons why households do not maintain their systems, but also because such an understanding could lead to appropriate policies to address the problem,” said Mohamed.

Governments’ education-led responses are based on the belief that homeowners are unaware of the need to maintain their septic systems. But Mohamed suggests that the reason homeowners don’t maintain their septic system is because doing so is not in their rational self-interest. In some cases, he said, there is even an incentive to neglect maintenance.

Households avoid maintenance partially because the characteristics of septic tanks reduce the likelihood that the consequences of failure can be pinpointed to a particular household. This is because as soon as waste matter leaves a household, it is difficult to trace back to that particular property. The negative consequences of poor maintenance are shared by the public at large, and the costs of remedial actions are frequently subsidized by public dollars.

The factors that contribute to the nonmaintenance of septic tanks among households apply to local governments as well, Mohamed said. It may be difficult to trace pollution back to the jurisdiction from which it came, and jurisdictions share the negative consequences of pollution with larger regions.

In order to reduce the high rate at which septic systems fail, Mohamed said that governments need to complement education programs with regulations that are established and enforced by the state.

“Education needs to be augmented with state-established regulations that contain incentives and sanctions to ensure implementation by local governments,” said Mohamed.

To learn more about the study, visit http://www.clas.wayne.edu/faculty/RaymanMohamed.


Wayne State University is one of the nation’s pre-eminent public research universities in an urban setting. Through its multidisciplinary approach to research and education, and its ongoing collaboration with government, industry and other institutions, the university seeks to enhance economic growth and improve the quality of life in the city of Detroit, state of Michigan and throughout the world. For more information about research at Wayne State University, visit http://www.research.wayne.edu.