The Sludge Hits the Fan

Joel Bleifuss

On New Year’s Eve most reporters aren’t at work. On New Year’s Day many people are in no condition to read the news.This past New Year’s Eve the Environmental Protection Agency took advantage of that media blind spot and denied a petition to ban the disposal of sewage sludge as land-based “fertilizer,” but announced that 15 additional toxins found in sludge would be added to its list of nine heavy metals that are currently regulated.Why the stealth announcement? If the media told the public about the dangers posed by sludge—the toxic byproduct of the nation’s sewage treatment plants—they might demand that the practice be stopped. Were that to happen, the corporate polluters that pour industrial pollutants down the drain and the municipal sewer systems that process that waste would have a huge, expensive toxic waste disposal problem on their hands.The Sierra Club defines sludge this way: “Urban sludges are a highly complex, unpredictable biologically active mixture of organic material and human pathogens that can contain thousands of industrial waste products, including dozens of carcinogens, hormone disrupting chemicals, toxic metals, dioxins, radionuclides and other persistent bioaccumulative poisons.”Formerly, a lot of sludge was shipped out to the ocean and dumped. When it became apparent that this practice was decimating the ocean’s ecosystem, environmentalists, led by the Natural Resources Defense Council, got the practice banned in 1992. But the problem remained: What is to be done with the mountains of sludge? It couldn’t easily be sent to landfills, given sludge is toxic and dumping it en masse would create a proliferation of industrial waste sites that would then need to be regulated and monitored.So the EPA came up with a novel solution. In 1993, with the help of a PR firm, the EPA renamed sludge “biosolids,” and then defined biosolids as a fertilizer. Fertilizers, unlike industrial wastes, are only lightly regulated. Consequently, each year more than 3 million tons of sewage sludge—excuse me, “biosolids”—are spread over farms and wilderness areas.Naturally this raises questions of whether sludge spreading threatens public safety. The EPA maintains that “biosolids” are safe. In a 1994 brochure, the agency bragged that rather than posing a health concern, sewage sludge may “protect child health” because a study found that animals that eat “biosolid-treated soil and dust may have a decreased absorbtion of lead into the bloodstream, thus lessening the potential for lead-induced nerve and brain damage.”Today’s children ingest more sludge than you might think. Much of the bagged soil at the big home-and-garden stores, such as Home Depot, contains municipal sewage sludge. But you would never know that because the EPA has decided that sludge is harmless and companies are therefore under no obligation to notify consumers that the “dirt” they are adding to their garden is an unholy mixture of material that not so long ago passed through human bowels and down factory sewers.Despite its constant assurances that sludge is safe, in March 2002 the EPA’s own Office of the Inspector General reported that the “EPA cannot assure the public that current land application practices are protective of human health and the environment.” And in July 2002, the National Research Council, part of the National Academy of Sciences, reported that the EPA’s 1993 sludge safety standards were based on an unreliable 1988 survey of hazardous chemicals. The NRC recommended that “additional scientific work is needed to reduce persistent uncertainty about the potential for adverse human health effects from exposure to [sewage sludge].”This past New Year’s Eve, the EPA responded to the National Research Council and said that it would begin the process of setting safety limits for an additional 15 chemical toxins found in sludge, bringing to 24 the number of poisons that will be regulated.The environmental movement is split on the question of what to do about sludge. The Natural Resources Defense Council, the group that led the fight to get sludge out of the ocean but onto the land, does not oppose land-based dumping. It does, however, want sludge to be more strictly regulated, particularly when it comes to dioxin, a deadly man-made chemical found in sludge. Last October, after a five-year study, the EPA decided not to regulate sludge for dioxin.On the other side of the regulatory divide is the coalition of 73 environmental and farm groups led by the Washington-based Center for Food Safety. Laura Orlando, the group’s spokeswoman, put it this way:Most large environmental organizations want regulation. They want to be players in the Beltway games and they can’t be players if there’s no chit chatting about fixing this and changing that. Those of us who believe sludge is a hopelessly toxic material and will not settle for regulated poison in our farms and playgrounds have no reason to sit down at the table with EPA. I am glad NRDC is reminding us that dioxin is in sludge, it shouldn’t be there, and that EPA ought to care. But the fight is not controlling dioxins in sludge, it is stopping the disposal of sewage sludge on land.The coalition filed a petition in October asking the EPA to comply with its statutory mandate to “protect public health and the environment from any reasonably anticipated adverse effects” and ban the land application of sewage sludge. In its petition, the group marshalled “considerable anecdotal evidence that the land application of sewage sludge” has harmed people, livestock and the environment.For example, the Cornell Waste Management Institute at Cornell University has compiled sludge-based health incident reports by 350 people who live in areas where sludge has spread. The characteristic symptoms include: asthma, weight loss, fatigue, eye irritations, flu-like symptoms, gastrointestinal complications, headaches, immunodeficiency problems, lesions, nausea, nosebleeds, rashes, respiratory complications, abscesses, reproductive complications, cysts and tumors.Further, three deaths have been attributed to EPA-regulated sewage sludge. In the petition, the coalitions lawyers wrote:In 1994, Tony Behun, an 11-year-old boy from Pennsylvania, became suddenly ill with skin lesions, fever and respiratory problems. He died from kidney failure four days later. Immediately before getting sick, he had ridden his bike through a mine reclamation field where sludge was being dumped. In November 1995, 26-year-old Shayne Conner went to bed in his home next door to a field where sludge was land applied. … He awoke with symptoms similar to Behun’s and died a short time later. …. 17-year-old Daniel [Pennock] died in 1995 of a massive bacterial infection after walking on a field where sewage sludge had been applied.The petition also notes that on June 24, 2003, a jury awarded the Boyce family in Burke County, Georgia, $550,000 in damages for the deaths of 300 diary cattle that ate from pastures spread with Augusta, Georgia, municipal sewage sludge.In the New Year’s Eve letter denying the petition, EPA Assistant Administrator G. Tracy Mehan III wrote, “EPA examined the information provided in the petition, as well as other sources of information, and has found no evidence that exposure to land-applied sewage sludge was the cause of any of the allegations of adverse health effects or of the specific human and animal deaths cited by petitioners.” Indeed, in his letter Mehan repeats 11 times that no scientific or medical evidence links any of these deaths to sewage sludge.Microbiologist David Lewis, the world’s leading sludge researcher and a former EPA scientist, disagrees. He has spent the last eight years studying the health effects of sludge on humans. In testimony in February before the House Mineral and Resources subcommittee, Lewis said:Growing numbers of people living near sites where the sludge is spread have reported bacterial and viral infections, some fatal, after contacting sewage sludge and breathing dusts blowing from the treated fields. My research at EPA and the University of Georgia showed that chemicals in processed sludge that irritate the skin and respiratory tract may make people susceptible to infections.An overview of his studies can be found in the current issue of Environmental Health Perspectives, a peer-reviewed journal of the National Institutes of Health.Lewis also charged that the EPA had denied the coalition’s petition using unreliable data that came from an EPA and industry-doctored research “white paper” that had not undergone peer review:The EPA has completely politicized the scientific peer-review process, both inside and outside the agency. …This whole process, of course, is nothing more than a scam. … It is a scam run by program office managers who are not qualified as research scientists and whose official position descriptions require that they defend EPA policies. In this case, the same EPA officials who developed the agency’s sludge policy are using the vast resources of the federal government to cover up adverse health effects and environmental damage resulting from the scientifically flawed policy they created.Further, Lewis asked that the subcommittee address the issue of whistleblower protection. Last May, the EPA fired Lewis, a 31-year veteran of the agency, for publicly questioning the agency’s assertions that sludge is safe.

Joel Bleifuss, a former director of the Peace Studies Program at the University of Missouri-Columbia, is the editor & publisher of In These Times, where he has worked since October 1986.

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