Human Sewage Sludge
This is from the New York Times, published January 3, 2004.
E.P.A. to Study Use of Waste From Sewage as Fertilizer
The Environmental Protection Agency will sponsor a series of scientific and public health studies on the safety of using sewage sludge as fertilizer, including nationwide chemical tests and building a human health complaint database.
The studies, in combination with the agency's announcement on Wednesday that it will more closely regulate 15 chemicals found in sewage sludge fertilizer, are part of the agency's efforts to address public concerns about an agricultural practice that has grown rapidly around the country over the last decade.
The announcements also reflect the agency's shifting public stance toward the practice. Currently, 54 percent of the six million tons of sewage sludge generated every year is processed, rechristened as biosolids and used as fertilizer - more sludge than is disposed of through incineration and landfill combined.
The popularity of the practice is in part due to the environmental agency's enthusiastic promotion, which started after Congress prohibited the ocean dumping of sewage sludge in 1992. The agency spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a public relations campaign for recycling sludge as fertilizer, which at that time accounted for less than a third of the sewage waste disposal. The agency even created a brochure in 1994 that said that processed sewage sludge may "protect child health." The brochure cited a study showing animals that ingested "biosolid-treated soil and dust may have a decreased absorption of lead into the bloodstream, thus lessening the potential for lead-induced nerve and brain damage."
In May, the agency fired a 32-year veteran agency scientist, David Lewis, who had raised questions about the safety of practice in a 1999 article published in Nature.
But hundreds of complaints have been documented over the last decade, including accusations that the toxic chemicals and pathogens have caused sickness and death in animals and humans. Appomattox County, Va., banned the use of biosolids, which a federal judge overturned in November for conflicting with state law allowing the practice.
Industry officials say the complaints have to be taken in context. "Given the large volume and multi-decade history of land application of biosolids, the complaints of the large-scale health impacts are few and far between," said James Slaughter, a lawyer who represents the biosolids industry.
Environmental agency officials are publicly more ambivalent.
"I can't answer it's safe. I can't answer it's not safe," Paul Gilman, the assistant administrator of agency's office of research and development, said in an interview with CBS in October about the practice.
"We are not promoting one approach over another," Ben Grumbles, the acting assistant administrator of the agency's office of water, said of the various choices. "We are promoting local choice. We believe the current sewage sludge regulations are adequately protective of human health in the environment."
The scientific concerns have been enough such that the Honolulu City Council voted last month to delay a contract with Synagro, a leading sewage sludge disposal company, pending further study on the safety of the practice.
The agency's scientific studies were prompted by a National Research Council report, released in July 2002, criticizing the science around sewage sludge as outdated.
In addition to regulating inorganic chemicals, the E.P.A. will also identify pathogens and viruses that are present in the sewage sludge - including staphylococcus aureus, a pathogen that tends to invade burned or chemically damaged tissue. While industry-sponsored research at the University of Arizona recently concluded that the pathogen is not present in biosolids, Dr. Lewis said it was the chemicals in the sewage sludge that leave residents more at risk from infection.
While critics of the sewage sludge policy are heartened by the research plans, they also caution that the agency should try to ensure balanced viewpoints.
"Historically, the activities sponsored by E.P.A. have tended to be one-sided in terms of having scientists who have been involved in developing the rule," said Ellen Harrison, director of the Cornell Waste Management Institute, who has been critical of some E.P.A policies. "There is a real need to change that and involve people who have been critical of some of the work to date."