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We've all stepped in it and seen it on our lawns, in parks and in public places. Dog feces is more than just a smelly nuisance; it is actually a health and environmental hazard.

As a health hazard to humans and pets, dog feces contains harmful bacteria and parasites. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirms that dog waste can spread parasites and bacterial diseases including hookworms, tapeworms, roundworms, campylobacteriosis and salmonella.

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When infected feces comes in contact with the ground, eggs from these parasites can live in the soil for years. Dog feces can also be the source of highly contagious giardia and coccidia — symptoms include bloody stool and serious gastrointestinal issues — that may re-infect dogs after veterinary treatment.

Humans and other pets risk being infected when coming into contact with contaminated soil because parasite eggs can live for years, even after the "poop pile" has decomposed — which can take over a year. Feces produced by wildlife is a source of several such parasites, bacteria and diseases.

Unfortunately, our canine pets are very attracted to this waste, and tend to consume it with gusto. The risk of infection is increased when humans engage in everyday activities like gardening without wearing gloves or walking barefoot. Oftentimes, children play in the dirt, touch dog toys that may have come in contact with dog feces, and then touch their mouths, making the risk of infection higher. If those examples haven't grossed you out yet, what about when people — especially kids — allow "puppy kisses" on their lips?

The Environmental Protection Agency classified pet waste as an environmental hazard almost 20 years ago. According to the EPA, "Two to three days of droppings from a population of 100 dogs contribute enough bacteria, nitrogen, and phosphorus to temporarily close a bay to swimming and shell fishing." The high concentration of nutrients contained in dog waste harms ecosystems by causing algal blooms, which kill aquatic animals and plants and can make humans and animals sick. There is a misconception that dog feces can be used as fertilizer, but it is actually toxic to lawns and should never be incorporated in backyard compost piles.

Pet waste is considered by the EPA as a "nonpoint source pollutant." This means that pollution can occur when storm water runoff from rain and melting snow moves over the ground, picking up and depositing the pollutant — feces — into bodies of water like streams, rivers and lakes, and the groundwater that supplies wells. In places where there are sewers and storm drains, it should be noted that not all storm drains are connected to water treatment facilities; therefore, the untreated animal feces contributes to water pollution. Studies performed in watersheds in the vicinity of Seattle, Wash., found that nearly 20 percent of the bacteria found in water samples were traced to dogs as the host animals.

We must be proactive to reduce the impact that dog waste has on health and the environment. Some preventive measures include: not walking dogs near streams, ponds and lakes, and immediately cleaning up after your dog wherever you go.

Here are some effective dog waste management and disposal suggestions:

• Purchase a large quantity of plastic poop bags, which can be found at most pet supply stores, and keep several of them in your coat pockets, purses and vehicles. Slip the poop bag over your hand like a glove, pick up your dog's "business," tie a knot at the open end of the bag, and dispose of it in a lidded outdoor trash can. For added sanitary protection for yourself, wear disposable nitrile gloves.

• Go on "poop patrol" at least once a week on your property using a "pooper scooper," and dispose of the contents in the outdoor trash can as well.

• The EPA recommends flushing dog waste as long as it is not mixed with other materials. If you have a septic system, consult with your septic maintenance company first to determine if your system is capable of handling the extra load.

• Purchase a pet "septic system," but follow instructions very carefully, especially when it comes to where to install it on your property.

• Hire a professional pet waste removal company to clean up your dog yard weekly. This type of service is appreciated by folks who are physically unable to bend over to clean up after their dogs.

As responsible dog owners, we must be part of the solution and not contribute to the problem of dog waste polluting water and causing health problems for ourselves and other living things.

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