Tuesday, July 5, 2016

10 Myths about biosolids

Ten Government-Industry Myths about Biosolids (download PDF)

Caroline Snyder Ph.D.*

MYTH NO. 1: For more than 2000 years industrial waste and sewage sludge have been land-applied as soil amendments. (Source: EPA i )

FACT: The myriad hazardous industrial chemical wastes found concentrated in modern treated sewage sludges (biosolids), including pesticides, pharmaceuticals, plasticizers, flame retardants and growth hormones to mention a few, did not even exist until recent decades.

MYTH NO. 2: Biosolids are nutrient-rich organic fertilizers. (Source: EPA ii )

FACT: It’s highly deceptive to call mixtures of many thousands of industrial chemical pollutants “nutrient-rich” simply because several of the pollutants are nitrogen and phosphorus compounds found in commercial fertilizers. Biosolids produced from sewage sludges generated in industrial urban centers are undoubtedly the most pollutant-rich materials on Earth. When applied to land, industrial pollutants in biosolids reenter aquatic systems and are magnified up the food chain. iii

MYTH NO. 3: Over 99% of biosolids is composed of water, organic matter, sand, silt, and common natural elements. (Source: NEBRA iv )

FACT: It’s also deceptive to call mixtures of many thousands of industrial chemical pollutants “natural,” especially when EPA and the biosolids industry are targeting consumers who use the words “natural” and “organic” to mean free of synthetic chemical contaminants.

MYTH NO. 4: Biosolids are essentially pathogen free. (Source: State of California v )

FACT: Many if not most pathogenic (disease-causing) bacteria and viruses can survive treatment processes used to produce biosolids (Class A and Class B); and many dangerous pathogens, such as Salmonella and Staphylococcus, can re-grow to high levels in biosolids, which is mostly comprised of human feces. vi New research indicates that sewage sludge treatment facilities are actually breeding grounds for antibiotic-resistant pathogens. vii

MYTH NO. 5: Infectious prions will not survive wastewater treatment and therefore are not present in land-applied biosolids. (Source: U. Arizona viii )

FACT: The latest research shows that prions survive wasterwater treatment processes. ix

MYTH NO. 6: Biosolids are not sources of pathogens or toxicants. Sludge syndrome is a somatic disease triggered by biosolids odors and by fears raised in the community and through the media. (Source: Mid-Atlantic Biosolids Association x )

FACT: Odors from biosolids are a warning that the material is emitting disease-causing pathogens and biological toxins, e.g., endotoxins. Peer-reviewed scientific studies have demonstrated that resulting health effects are not imagined but real. xi

MYTH NO. 7: Allegations of health problems linked to biosolids exposure are urban myths. (Source: NEBRA xii)

FACT: Many hundreds of sludge-exposed rural neighbors have reported chronic respiratory, skin and gastrointestinal conditions consistent with exposures to the types of chemical and biological contaminants found in biosolids. The relationship between land application of biosolids and such adverse health effects has been documented in valid scientific studies, including the peer-reviewed scientific literature. xiii

MYTH NO. 8: Treatment breaks down most organic chemical pollutants. (Source: NEBRA xiv )

FACT: EPA’s 2009 Targeted National Sewage Sludge Survey of 74 sewage treatment plants in 38 states, which sampled 145 industrial chemical pollutants, found them in every sample. xv Their concentration ranges often topped ppm-levels and higher, exceeding concentrations considered safe in drinking water by orders of magnitude. Moreover, the breakdown products from organic chemical pollutants are often more harmful than the parent compounds. xvi

MYTH NO. 9: Biosolids contaminants are tightly bound to soil and do not become bioavailable. According to Rufus Chaney, “You can put enough heavy metals in the soil to kill the crop but that crop is still safe for human consumption.” (Source: USDA xvii )

FACT: EPA and the USDA buried studies demonstrating heavy metals in biosolids exceeding current levels permitted by EPA caused liver and kidney damage in farm animals grazing on fields treated with biosolids. xviii After EPA promulgated the current sludge rule in 1992, it worked with the Water Environment Federation to establish the “National Biosolids Public Acceptance Campaign.” EPA’s Office of Inspector General investigated EPA’s efforts to silence Dr. David Lewis, one of its top scientists who documented adverse health effects, and concluded that EPA could not assure the public that land application of biosolids is safe. xix

MYTH NO. 10: US sludge regulations that govern the land application of biosolids (40 CFR Part 503) are completely protective, based on science and valid risk assessment models. (Source: NEBRA xx )

FACT: A 1999 Cornell Waste Management Institute paper concluded that the 503s do not protect human health, agriculture, or the environment. xxi The 503s regulate only nine metals plus inorganic nutrients (N, P). Even though industry can legally discharge any amount of hazardous waste into sewage treatment plants, the rules are based on chemical-by-chemical risk assessment which ignores the effects of mixtures and interactions. The 2002 NRC biosolids panel recognized this andconcluded that u201cis not possible to conduct a risk assessment for biosolids at this time (or perhaps ever) that will lead to risk-management strategies that will provide adequate health protection without some form of ongoing monitoring and surveillance . . . the degree of uncertainty requires some form of active health and environmental tracking. xxii


i R.K. Bastian. Interpreting Science in the Real World for Sustainable Land Application 2005; JEQ34,1:174.

ii EPA Fact Sheet.

iii Hale, R.C., M.J. LaGuardia, E.P. Harvey, M.O. Gaylor, T.M. Mainor, and W.H. Duff. Persistent pollutants in land applied sludges. Nature 412:140-141.

iv NEBRA, Response to Toxic Action Centeru2019s Toxic Sludge in Our Communities. March 3, 2003.

v CalRecycle.

vi Gattie, DK and DL Lewis. 2004. A high-level disinfection standard for land-applied sewage sludge (biosolids). Environ. Health Perspect. 112:126-31.

vii Gibbs, RA et al. 1997. Re-growth of faecal coliforms and salmonellae in stored biosolids and soil amended with biosolids. Water Science and Technology 35 (11-12).

viii Miles S.L; Takizawa, C.P. Gerba, and I.L. Pepper. 2011. Survival of Infectious Prions in Class B Biosolids. J.Env..Sci. & Hlth. 46: 364-370.

ix Kaplan N. Prionsu2019 Great Escape.

x Toffey, W.E. Biosolids Odorant Emissions as a Cause of Somatic Disease. Presentation to the 2007 North East Bisolids & Residuals Conference & Exhibit. Philadelphia Water Department. December 4, 2007.

xi Shusterman, D. 1992. Critical review; the health significance of environmental odor pollution. Arch.Environ.Health 47:76-87.

xii NEBRA March 3, 2003 op.cit p. 10.

xiii Lewis, D. L. et al. 2002. Interactions of pathogens and irritant chemicals in land-applied sewage sludges (biosolids) BMC 2:11.;

Lewis, DL, Gattie DK. 2002. Pathogen risks from applying sewage sludge to land Environ. Sci. Technol. 36:286A-293A;

Ghosh, J. 2005. Bioaerosols Generated From Biosolids Applied Farm Fields In Wood County, Ohio. Master of Science Thesis, Graduate College of Bowling Green State University. Abstract by Robert K Vincent, Advisor.; Khuder, S. et al. Arch. Environ. Occup. Health 2007; 62, 5u201311.

xiv NEBRA. March 3, op.cit. p. 22.

xv USEPA. Biosolids: Targeted National Sewage Sludge Survey Report - Overview, January 2009, EPA 822-R-08-014.;

See also Jennifer G. Sepulvado, Andrea C. Blaine, Lakhwinder S. Hundal, and Christopher P. Higgins. Occurrence and Fate of Perfluorochemicals in Soil Following the Land Application of Municipal Biosolids. Environ. Sci. Technol., Publication Date (Web): March 29, 2011 (Article) DOI: 10.1021/es103903d

xvi DL Lewis, W Garrison, KE Wommack, A Whittemore, P Steudler, J Melillo. Influence of environmental changes on degradation of chiral pollutants in soils. Nature 1999; 401:898-901;

Paris DF, Lewis DL. Chemical and microbial degradation of ten selected pesticides in aquatic systems. Residue reviews 1973; 45:95-124.

xvii MD Abernethy, “To sludge or not to sludge?: At summit, scientists discuss risks,” Interview with R Chaney, USDA. Green Consumer Headlines, Times-News, May 2, 2010.

Unfortunately, this source is no longer available online. Caroline Snyder who prepared “10 Myths about Biosolids” offered this alternate reference:

USDA agronomist Rufus Chaney believes that the organic matter in sludge as well as some metals cause a plateau effect i.e. after a certain point these sludge contaminants are bound permanently to soils and do not become bioavailable, even when the organic matter decays. EPA has accepted this theory in its Guide to Biosolids Risks Assessments for the Part 503 rule. Please see Figure 4 page 38. Chaney claims that adding sludge to soil actually prevents plant uptake of metals. Many scientists, including soil scientists at the Cornell Waste Management Institute do not support the plateau theory, citing field studies and other credible evidence to the contrary.

xviii US EPA Report: EPA-600/S1-81-026, 232 p. (Apr. 1981). “Sewage Sludge - Viral and Pathogenic Agents in Soil-Plant-Animal Systems.” G.T. Edds and J.M. Davidson, Institute of Food and Agricultural Systems, University of Florida. An EPA Project Summary is available at by searching 600S181026 or key words in the title of the report.

xix U.S. EPA Office of Inspector General Status Report - Land Application of Biosolids, 2002-S-000004, Mar. 28, 2002.

xx NEBRA, “Is biosolids recycling safe? How do we know?”

xxi Harrison, E.Z. McBride M.B. and Bouldin D.R. Land application of sewage sludges: an appraisal of the US regulations. Int.J.Environment and Pollution, Vol.11, No.1. 1-36. Retrieved at

See also Case for Caution Revisited 2008 (revised 2009) retrieved at

The 503 sludge rule can be found at

xxii National Academy of Sciences, National Research Council. Biosolids Applied to Land: Advancing Standards and Practices, National Academy Press, Jul. 2, 2002.

*Citizens for Sludge-Free Land 9-6-13