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EPA Fails To Qualm Fears Over Sewer Sludge-Derived Fertilizer
(Beyond Pesticides, January 13, 2004)
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced in late December that it would monitor fifteen more pollutants found in fertilizer made from sewer sludge, according to The New York Times. This move, combined with the Agency’s October commitment to commission new studies to determine the overall safety of using sewage sludge for fertilizer, may make some feel more protected but will unlikely quiet the biggest critics of the practice.

The announcement follows on the heels of the Agency’s rejection in October of a petition filed by 73 labor, environment, and farm groups to better protect public health and environment by placing a moratorium on the use of the land-based sludge-derived fertilizer.

The EPA said that the fifteen chemicals, acetone, anthracene, barium, beryllium, carbon disulfide, 4-chloroaniline, diazinon, fluoranthene, manganese, methyl ethyl ketone, nitrate, nitrite, phenol, pyrene and silver, are considered hazardous enough to be a potential health threat to people and animals and will be added to the nine inorganic chemicals that it already regulates. The Agency added that no final regulation changes will be proposed before new risk assessments are made, and that if found to be hazardous, the EPA will propose new regulations “as soon as practicable”.

Sewage sludge, which is considered the “cleansed” product of sewage treatment, contains a toxic blend of heavy metals, synthetic organic compounds, pathogens, and radioactive contaminants which come from industrial plants, hospital waste, agricultural run-off, and other known and unknown sources.

Roughly 5.6 to 6 million tons of sewer waste disposal is created in the U.S. each year, and of that, as much as 60% is repackaged into biosolids and used as fertilizer on farms across the country, according to most sources. The rest is either incinerated or buried in landfill.

The use of sewer sludge as fertilizer began to take off in 1992 when ocean dumping of sewage was banned and the EPA spent hundreds of thousands of dollars promoting the practice. In a 1994 brochure, the Agency used an animal lead absorption study to market processed sewage sludge as potentially able to ‘protect child health’, reports the Times.

The petition signed by public interest groups like the United Mine Workers of America, Clean Water Action, the Organic Consumers Association, the Center for Food Safety, and Farm Aid, claims thousands have been hurt since the practice was promoted by the EPA and documents several cases where the fertilizer has poisoned or killed farm animals, lands and individuals - including three human deaths.

In June 2003, a Georgia court ruled that the land application of sewage sludge on a Boyceland Dairy resulted in the poisoning of the farmland and the deaths of 300 prize-winning cattle. In another case, Chris Bryan, a road construction worker from Dublin, Gorgia, went on disability for four months after suffering nausea, chills, shaking and liver damage after he and other workers (who also became ill) were exposed to contaminated hay used to build roads, according to yet another New York Times article.

In the more than ten years since sewer sludge has been recycled as fertilizer, 350 health complaints related to the practice have been collected by The Cornell Waste Management Institute. Health effects include respiratory complications, abscesses, reproductive complications, cysts, asthma, weight loss, fatigue, eye irritations, gastrointestinal illnesses, headaches, lesions, nauseas, nosebleeds, rashes and immunodeficiency problems, according to the petition.

EPA officials have shown little public alarm over the issue. Ben Grumbles, the acting assistant administrator of the office of water said, ‘We believe the current sewage sludge regulations are adequately protective of human health in the environment’, reports The Times.

This, despite criticism from a panel of the National Research Council that the EPA was using outdated science to assess the health risks from the fertilizer. The council said that EPA’s standards, adopted in 1993, were based on a 1988 survey of the chemicals contained in sludge-derived fertilizer that proved to be unreliable, according to a January 2, 2003 Times article.

One of the biggest critics of fertilizer derived from sewage sludge is former-EPA research microbiologist David Lewis. Dr. Lewis’ recent dismissal from the EPA in May 2003 after 32 years of service, sparked condemnation from congress people and others and cast a harsh light on EPA’s willingness to employ unbiased, independent scientists to conduct the newly promised studies.

“EPA named scientists that the EPA will fund to carry out research on potential health effects of land applied sewage sludges,” says Dr. Lewis on his website. “The named scientists are those who have long been supported by EPA to promote current land application practices as being completely safe.”

Dr. Lewis claims that, “Synagro Technologies Inc., the Water Environment Federation, and other entities with vested interests in the sewage sludge industry have been waging an unrelenting, no-holds-barred effort,” to stop critical research on sewage sludge at the EPA and the University of Georgia, where he is based.

“The efficacy of treatment methods in reducing or eliminating broad classes of viruses, bacteria, protozoa, fungi, and parasitic worms needs to be documented,” writes Dr. Lewis. His research on the health threats from sewer sludge was published in two peer-reviewed journals while he was still with the EPA and has been reproduced in numerous publications.