The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says it’s ready to take a new look at the science and risks involved in using treated human waste – sewage sludge – as fertilizer on farmland. That’s seen as good news for people who live near farms using sewage sludge. Some of them say the sludge makes them sick. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Amy Tardif reports:
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says it’s ready to take a new look at the science and
risks involved in using treated human waste – sewage sludge – as fertilizer on farmland. That’s
seen as good news for people who live near farms using sewage sludge. Some of them say the
sludge makes them sick. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Amy Tardif reports:
About three million dry tons of treated sewage – called sludge – is used to fertilize sod, pasture
land and even food crops every year in the United States. As cities sprawl and people move into
rural areas they discover the practice. And many don’t like it.
“We were like what is that smell? This is sick. It makes you want to vomit. Your eyes start
burning and you want to get away from it as quick as you can.”
Molly Bowen is one of a group of homeowners suing the haulers who dump and landowners who
use sewage sludge near their neighborhood. People around the country have blamed the sludge
for causing illnesses and even deaths. They say their wells are contaminated with sludge. They
say they breathe sludge dust blowing from recently treated fields. Bowen and her neighbors
blame the sludge for a lot of health problems.
“Laryngitis, stomach, upper respiratory, not being able to breath well.”
For a while these people thought no one was listening. But cases are coming in from all over and
the Environmental Protection Agency is starting to pay attention. In 2002, the EPA asked the
National Academy of Sciences to study the public health aspects of sludge. Thomas Burke is a
professor and epidemiologist with Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
He chaired the study.
“This is poop we’re talking about here. It has the potential to cause serious illness if they’re not treated
appropriately and if there is not appropriate protection of the population.”
Burke and others studied to see if the EPA methods used to determine the limits for chemicals,
viruses and bacteria in sewage sludge were strong enough. Burke says the methods are not strong
enough to use the sludge safely.
“We need to understand better the potential health effects. We need a new national survey to
understand the microbes and the potential pathogens that might be present. And also we need to
better characterize the chemicals that might be present in sludge. The current rules are based upon
work that was done back in the ’80’s.”
The EPA is looking at those concerns. It says it will try to determine if there are contaminants in
the sludge that could cause health problems.
Prior to the National Academies of Sciences report, government regulators, including the EPA,
sewer plant managers, and sludge haulers, insisted sludge was safe when applied according to
Houston-based Synagro manages sludge biosolids for municipalities in 35 states. Vice President
for government relations, Bob O’dette says there’s been plenty of studies already.
“If I thought for a moment that this caused anybody any health problems, I wouldn’t be in the
industry. I formed my opinion on biosolids before I came into the private sector.”
Problems have been pointed out. But the Federal Office of Inspector General reported in 2002
that the EPA offers virtually no federal oversight over sludge disposal and the agency is not
protecting the public. Those in the agency that tried to point out the problems were pressured or
Dr. David Lewis says he warned his bosses that using sludge might cause health problems. He
worked as a research microbiologist at the EPA’s national exposure research laboratory in
Georgia. He was fired last May. He alleges in whistleblower lawsuits that the EPA – which not
only regulates, but also promotes recycling sludge biosolids as fertilizer – wanted his sludge
“I can assure you that many of the issues raised by private citizens are issues that are raised and
that many scientists at EPA share those concerns and have from the beginning because of the
concerns over pathogens, metals and other contaminants in sludge and that concerns the risk that
might be present for public health and the environment.”
Lewis says although many viruses and bacteria die in the field, especially when exposed to
sunlight, the biggest risk of infection comes from what grows in the sludge after it’s put down.
Bacterial pathogens grow when the organic matter decomposes. He says it’s just like meat that’s
cooked and then left out on the counter. Some nasty stuff can start growing.
But now the EPA indicates it is ready to make changes. It plans to spend nearly six-million
dollars over the next three years following some of the advice of the National Academy of
Science study. Geff Grubbs is the EPA’s director of science and technology.
“We’re looking at what are the possible impacts and risks to people who live near and would
otherwise be exposed to pollutants that are emitted into the air from biosolids as they’re applied
to land. We’ll be conducting an analysis of samples of biosolids from various points across the
country to help determine the concentrations of additional pollutants that could impact health.”
The EPA says it will first look at health studies of people who claim to have become sick from
exposure to sludge. And it hopes to work with the Centers for Disease Control and state health
departments to arrange for them to track and investigate alleged cases of sludge sickness.
Environmentalists and others say they hope this is a more science-based look at the issue, but
they remain skeptical.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Amy Tardif.