The Sludging of America

Sewage Waste Spread on Farms and Landfills is Causing Chronic Health Problems

Linda Zander, a dairy farmer in Lynden, Washington, says that she and her husband are seriously ill from the sewage sludge spread on a neighbor’s farm. Zander, who now heads Help for Sewage Sludge Victims, recently won a civil suit which found that the sewage had fouled her air and contaminated her well. Patti Baker of Elkrun, Ohio was cheering her victory. The former runner says she can hardly walk upstairs after sludge fertilizer, spread on a nearby stripmine, seeped into her well.

Zander and Baker are not alone. Chronic health problems caused by sewage sludge—treated material waste from municipal sewage plants—have become a growing national problem since Congress banned ocean dumping in 1992 without mandating safe alternatives. Although, says Dr. Peter Motavalli, a soil scientist at the University of Guam, hazardous materials like lead, mercury, zinc and cadmium are supposed to be removed from the sludge, problems do occur when poorly treated sludge is over-applied. “But there are also many success stories,” Motavalli says.

Instead of dumping at sea hundreds of thousands of tons of municipal sewage sludge containing infected human feces, hospital wastes, bacteria, viruses, dioxins, PCBs, asbestos, industrial waste, heavy metals and a whole range of other pollutants, the material is now being spread on America’s landfills, farmlands and prairies. The waste, known to contain 25 carcinogens and considered too dangerous for the oceans, is now processed with chemicals, pelletized or composted with garbage, yard waste and cement dust. This “fertilizer” is then donated or sold to landfill operations, farms and landscapers.

Because sewage sludge is the accumulated solids concentrated during the treatment of a community’s wastewater, it contains whatever pollutants are in the area’s households, businesses, hospitals, industries, institutions and sometimes storm sewers. It is this material that is sometimes spread as fertilizer, with no records kept of chemical contamination.

In many cases, unsuspecting neighbors are given no warning. Dr. Stanford Tackett, professor emeritus of the Indiana University of Pennsylvania Chemistry Department, warns that “one application of sewage sludge to the land adds more lead per acre than 50 years of driving with leaded gasoline.” He believes current disposal practices put the environment, human, animal and plant life at great risk.

Dr. Donald Lisk of Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences wrote in a 1993 report entitled The Issue of Sewage Sludge Application to Land that “municipal sewage sludges are highly variable in their composition and only a small percentage of the toxicants are known.” Microbiologist Dr. John Duda, laboratory technical director at Brownsville General Hospital in Pennsylvania, also cautions that “infectious agents pass through patients’ stools and wind up in the sludge.” He notes that a few years ago there was an outbreak of Salmonella Poona infections due to contaminated cantaloupes fertilized with municipal sewage sludge.

A growing number of institutions and individuals are becoming aware of these risks. Major food packers like DelMonte and Heinz have already banned “sludged” produce to protect their consumers. Farm Credit Bureaus are refusing to finance “sludged” farms due to the financial risks from contaminated soils. Insurance companies have inserted environmental liability exclusions in their policies to protect themselves against substantial claims.

This fear was confirmed when William Parker, an American farmer in the Bahamas, was awarded $6.9 million in damages when the sewage sludge fertilizer containing bacteria that survived processing at Dade County’s Water and Sewer Authority destroyed his papaya crop.

Sierra Blanca, Texas residents are being assisted by Hugh B. Kaufman, an EPA official, after reports of severe nausea and burning eyes from an operation there that imports sludge from New York City. An investigation into the permitting process which approved the operation is underway and major lawsuits are pending.

Besides land spreading, a variety of composting processes mix sewage sludge and other stabilizing agents to produce fertilizer or fuel products. Other compost technologies pelletize the dry sludge or mix it with other bulking agents like yard wastes. Vast amounts of sewage sludge are then shipped to rural communities for composting.

Soil scientists are concerned that the heavy metals and chemical toxins which remain in these products will damage crop soils and eventually leach into groundwater. The ammonia odors created by the high Ph levels, airborne dust particles and flies attracted to these facilities have already caused citizen groups across the country to take action.

In Harmony, New Jersey, Lois Markle, president of Save Our Land And Environment (SOLE), reports that her group filed a lawsuit because “odors from a regional sludge composting facility were so strong that children could not play outdoors and wedding guests had to flee when a powerful stench overwhelmed the reception.”

On the Torrez-Martinez Indian Reservation in California, tribal members and Greenpeace activists recently blocked sludge shipments after tests showed that the groundwater beneath a huge mound of dried sewage fertilizer was polluted with heavy metals and toxic compounds. “We could live with the smell…but we can’t live with drinking poisoned water,” says Arturo Sanchez, who lives two miles away from the site and now buys only bottled drinking water.

The American Chemical Society reports that sludge-contaminated yard waste “may contain a number of herbicides, insecticides and fungicide residue.” Airborne aspergillus fungi may pose serious health implications, especially for immuno-suppressed populations. This concern became a reality when Henry Dobbins, a Long Island hot dog vendor, died from infection by aspergillus fungal spores. His family has filed a lawsuit against a compost facility within a half mile of his business.

Charlotte Hartman, a member of Albany, New York’s Citizens Environmental Coalition, urges the issuing of “no net degradation” standards for the disposal of sewage sludge. She further calls for full public disclosure of sludge spreading to area farmers and communities. Although it’s unlikely in the current deregulatory climate, some scientific observers recommend full-scale epidemiological studies to determine the public health implications of current sludge practices. Unchecked, the sludging of America may wreak more havoc on the land than it did in the ocean.