Drivers and barriers among householders to managing domestic wastewater treatment systems in the Republic of Ireland implications for risk prevention behaviour

Catherine Devitt*, Eoin O'Neill, Richard Waldron

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

15 Citations (Scopus)


Septic systems that are malfunctioning, improperly sited or designed, present a contamination risk to drinking water sources, and subsequently, to human health. However, the international literature identifies gaps in householder knowledge regarding the function and maintenance requirements of septic systems, and also the potential health and environmental risk implications. Allied with householder fears related to the financial cost of risk management, these factors tend to reduce concern to recognise a malfunctioning system. In the Republic of Ireland, three-quarters of households in rural areas utilise an individual domestic wastewater treatment system (or septic system). Consequently, a significant portion of rural households that rely on groundwater sources via private-well use are at risk. Ireland reports one of the highest crude incidence rates of Verotoxigenic Escherichia coli (VTEC) infection in the European Union, and waterborne transmission related to contact with untreated or poorly treated water from private water sources is a factor in its transmission. Following recent Irish legislative change that places a duty of care on individual householders to ensure a proper system functioning, this exploratory study examines perceptions towards the risk management of septic systems among Irish householders. Using qualitative research methods, four focus groups selected on the basis of geographical variation, and two semi-structured interviews were conducted. While most householders agreed that poorly maintained septic systems represented a threat to the environment and to public health, none reported to having a regular maintenance routine in place. Thematic analysis revealed the drivers and barriers to septic system maintenance, and preferences of householders pertaining to communication on septic systems. The Health Belief Model is employed to help understand results. Results suggest that householder capacity to engage in regular risk management is reduced by limited perceptions of risk susceptibility and severity, impeding cues to action and barrier concerns. Understanding societal perceptions is central to effectively engaging with the public, and informing an improved approach to future pro-environmental engagement and behaviour.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)534-546
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of Hydrology
Early online date17 Feb 2016
Publication statusPublished - 01 Apr 2016


  • Domestic wastewater treatment systems
  • Health Belief Model
  • Risk perception
  • Septic systems
  • Thematic analysis

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Water Science and Technology


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