In These Times    
Independent News and Views
HomeAbout UsSubscribeArchivesProject Censored
Search The Site
Advanced Search


An interview with “peace activist” Neta Golan.
Human Cameras, Human Shields, Human Targets
“Internationals” inside a war zone in Palestine.
War for War’s Sake
Meet the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.


Terror in the Territories.
The sludge report.
Power Mad
Phoenix ascending.


U.S. considers renewing military ties to Indonesia.
Who’s Counting?
U.S. plan to eradicate coca crops in Bolivia fails miserably.
Testing has killed thousands, a new study shows.
Far-right Cartoonist Strikes Again
Saving Women’s Lives
In Person: Dr. Thoraya Obaid


Little Big Women
BOOKS: Jean Bethke Elshtain dreams of Jane Addams.
BOOKS: John Maynard Keynes’ pursuit of the sublime.
Acquired Tastes
FILM: Trouble Every Day.
Studs Terkel turns 90.

April 12, 2002
The Sludge Report

First Stone Sewage sludge, the toxic byproduct of the nation’s sewage treatment facilities, continues to be spread across the American countryside as an EPA-defined form of fertilizer.

I first wrote about this pernicious form of land-based dumping in 1995. Since then a few things have changed on the sludge front. The Merriam-Webster dictionary now contains “biosolids,” the EPA and the waste treatment industry having convinced the editors that this was an actual word and not a PR firm’s attempt to linguistically detoxify “sludge.”

Yet no ameliorative wordplay can mask the fact that sewage sludge is the same old shit, an amalgam of everything that flows from homes and industries down the drain into municipal sewer systems. The Sierra Club puts it this way: “Urban sludges are a highly complex, unpredictable biologically active mixture of organic material and human pathogens that contain thousands of industrial waste products, including dozens of carcinogens, hormone disrupting chemicals, toxic metals, dioxins, radionuclides and other persistent bioaccumulative poisons.”

It’s good news that one of the national environmental organizations has taken a stand on the disposal of sludge by renaming it fertilizer. More than half of the sewage sludge produced each year in the United States—3.5 million metric tons—is spread on agricultural land, according to the EPA. Yet the environmental dangers posed by this practice have not received the national attention they deserve. Most opposition to sludge dumping is taking place on the local level, particularly in communities where residents have become ill and even died after exposure to the sludge-based fertilizer.

In Greenland, New Hampshire, a number of residents fell ill after biosolids were spread on neighboring farmland by Synagro Technologies Inc., one of the nation’s largest sludge disposers. Shayne Conner, a 26-year-old, failed to recover and died of a Staphylococcus aureus infection. His family filed suit and, in January, reached an out-of-court settlement. Synagro paid them an undisclosed sum to drop their suit, sign a gag order and publicly agree that the scientific evidence, as provided in testimony from EPA scientist David L. Lewis, did not prove that his exposure to sludge had contributed to Conner’s death.

The settlement language in the Conner case is the latest chapter in an ongoing industry and EPA effort to discredit Lewis. His warnings about the dangers of land-based disposal of sludge, if widely publicized, could cost the waste disposal industry millions of dollars.

Lewis is a microbiologist at the EPA’s own National Exposure Research Laboratory in Athens, Georgia. In 1992, he discovered that a common method of sterilizing dental instruments failed to kill the HIV virus, and, as a result, some patients were contracting AIDS at their dentist’s office. Lewis is now trying to alert the public to the dangers posed by sludge-born human pathogens such as Staphylococcus aureus. In Pennsylvania, two children have died of Staphylococcus aureus infections after being exposed to sewage sludge.

In 1999, the British journal Nature published a paper by Lewis, which concluded that the land application of sewage sludge could alter soil chemistry and elevate the risks posed by agricultural pesticides. In response, the EPA removed the director of the Athens laboratory because she had approved the publication of Lewis’ research, according to a Labor Department investigation.

After hearings by the House Science Committee, the director was reinstated, and she subsequently approved a two-year study by Lewis of nine sludge-exposed communities whose residents reported a high incidence of Staphylococcus aureus infections. (Lewis presented some of the results of that study in November at a sludge conference sponsored by Boston University’s School of Public Health, and, indeed, he found a correlation between sludge application and human illness.)

Last year, Lewis’ supervisors cleared his research for submission to scientific journals. Subsequently, Lewis learned that a Washington EPA official had met with an executive vice president of Synagro to figure out a way to stop the publication of his findings. At the time, Lewis was an unpaid expert witness in the suit against Synagro for the death of Shayne Conner.

The judge in that case ruled that the Washington meeting was improper and ordered Synagro to keep Lewis’ paper confidential until it was published in a peer-reviewed journal. So Synagro and the EPA changed tactics and, in September, distributed an unsigned report on Synagro letterhead titled “Analysis of David Lewis’ Theories Regarding Biosolids,” which contained a multitude of false and misleading statements.

Lewis responded to this harassment by seeking help from the National Whistleblower Center, which filed a complaint with the EPA Inspector General on his behalf. On March 28, the Inspector General’s office released its report, stating, “The EPA cannot assure the public that current land application practices [of sewage sludge] are protective of human health and the environment.”

That conclusion is one that the National Academy of Sciences will have to consider in its current reassessment of the risks posed by the EPA’s sludge policy. For his part, Lewis feels vindicated. “The report,” he says, “shows that EPA didn’t get the science right and has no idea how much the public health and the environment may have suffered as a result.”

Return to top of the page.

2002 The Institute for Public Affairs | Contact webmaster.
home | about us | subscribe | archives | project censored