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Wastewater may contain high levels of the nutrients nitrogen and phosphorus. Excessive release to the environment can lead to a build up of nutrients, called eutrophication, which can in turn encourage the overgrowth of weeds, algae, and cyanobacteria (blue-green algae). This may cause an algal bloom, a rapid growth in the population of algae. The algae numbers are unsustainable and eventually most of them die. The decomposition of the algae by bacteria uses up so much of oxygen in the water that most or all of the animals die, which creates more organic matter for the bacteria to decompose. In addition to causing deoxygenation, some algal species produce toxins that contaminate drinking water supplies. Different treatment processes are required to remove nitrogen and phosphorus.
The removal of nitrogen is effected through the biological oxidation of nitrogen from ammonia (nitrification) to nitrate, followed by denitrification, the reduction of nitrate to nitrogen gas. Nitrogen gas is released to the atmosphere and thus removed from the water.
Denitrification requires anoxic conditions to encourage the appropriate biological communities to form. It is facilitated by a wide diversity of bacteria.