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How EPA Faked the Entire Science of Sewage Sludge Safety: A Whistleblower’s Story

For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's Toxic Sludge & Organic Compost page and our Food Safety Research Center page.

US EPA's 503 sludge rule (1993) allows treated sewage sludges, aka biosolids, to be land-applied to farms, forests, parks, school playgrounds, home gardens and other private and public lands. According to a recent EPA survey, biosolids contain a wide range of mutagenic and neurotoxic chemicals, which are present at a million-fold higher concentrations (ppm versus ppt) compared with their levels in polluted air and water (1). Biosolids contain all of the lipophilic (fat-soluble) chemical wastes that once polluted our rivers and lakes, but which now settle out at sewage treatment plants and become concentrated in sewage sludges. Most biosolids contain ppm concentrations of heavy metals, including chromium, lead, and mercury. They contain similarly high levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and semi-volatiles, such as bis (2-Ethylhexyl) phthalate, Benzo(a)pyrene), and polybrominated diphenyl ether congeners (PBDE flame retardants). Most biosolids also contain pathogenic agents and ppm levels of many common drugs, including ciprofloxacin (Cipro), carbamazepine (Tegretol, Equetro), and fluoxetine (Prozac).

While working at EPA Dr David Lewis published evidence that teenager Shayne Conner (of New Hampshire) died and other neighbors were harmed from living near land applied with sewage sludge ( Lewis et al 2002). He furthermore became involved after dairy herds of two Georgia farms (McElmurray and Boyce) were poisoned after grazing on sludged land. He testified in lawsuits following each incident, against his employer (EPA), which is where many of the following depositions were obtained. The following article is an excerpt from Chapter 4 (Sludge Magic) of his new book ( Science for Sale: How the US Government Uses Powerful Corporations and Leading Universities to Support Government Policies, Silence Top Scientists, Jeopardize Our Health, and Protect Corporate Profits). The lawsuits referred to are Lewis v. EPA 1999; Lewis v. EPA 2003; and USA, ex rel. Lewis, McElmurray and Boyce v. Walker et al. 2009. The depositions below piece together an unprecedented and coordinated multi-agency scientific scheme involving EPA, USDA, local and city municipalities, Synagro Technologies (a waste management company), various universities, and the National Academies of Science. The effort was intended to misleadingly present sewage sludge as scientifically safe, to hide the evidence that it was not, to deliberately misreport the contents of municipal sludges, and smear David Lewis with a scientific misconduct charge after he blew the whistle.

From "Sludge Magic" by Dr David Lewis:


The Men Behind the Curtain

1) Alan Rubin - EPA

Alan Rubin, who was a career chemist at EPA's Office of Water, is considered the primary author of EPA's 503 sludge rule. He was one of a number of  office scientists at EPA headquarters involved in retaliations against scientists and private citizens who reported adverse health effects associated with biosolids. Time magazine (September 27, 1999) ran a short article about Rubin mailing "death threats" on EPA and Water Environment Federation (WEF) letterhead to private citizens concerned about biosolids, saying, "Ask not for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee!"

When deposed in my U.S Department of Labor cases, Dr. Rubin explained what motivated these attacks:

RUBIN QUESTIONED BY ATTORNEY STEPHEN KOHN (1999) (2)

Q. Are you proud of the work you did?  Do you feel, in any way, hurt or upset to have someone like Dr. Lewis criticizing it? Professionally hurt, a little? A. Somewhat. Q. How so? A. Well, I think my professional reputation, to a large extent, is based on my association with biosolids, 503 and its technical basis. So I feel my reputation would be somewhat disparaged if the basis of the rule, and the scientific findings were shown to be in error.


Rubin coined the term "sludge magic" when EPA's proposed 503 sludge rule was undergoing internal peer review at EPA's Office of Research & Development in 1992. Dr. Robert Swank, the research director at the EPA lab in Athens, Georgia, where I worked, called Dr. Rubin. When Swank asked him to explain how sewage sludge renders pollutants non-bioavailable, Rubin replied, "It's magic." During his deposition, Rubin deferred to USDA agronomist Rufus Chaney when questioned about scientific studies supporting sludge magic:

RUBIN QUESTIONED BY MR. KOHN (1999) (3)

Q. You called it sludge magic? A. Yes, that is my term. "sludge magic" [means] there are unique properties in the biosolids matrix that sequester metals, that sequester organics. By sequester I mean significantly reduce the mobility to move from the biosolids out to the environment, and the matrix is really complex, and has organic material in it, organic pollutants, I'm talking about organic materials, like unit type materials, and carbohydrates, and manganese, and iron, and phosphorus, and all of these work together with the soil in a matrix to significantly reduce, if not eliminate movement of pollutants from the biosolids out to the environment. The processes, some of them are understood, some of them are not that well understood, but the whole thing taken together is called magic. So I coined the term magic. Q. And the "sludge magic" which prevents harmful stuff that is in the sludge escaping the sludge? A. Moving at any significant flux or rate out to the environment to create doses of pollutants that would harm plants, animals or humans. Q.  these studies [are] kept somewhere? A. No, they are actually-well, Chaney is probably the one that has them all, he is like a walking encyclopedia.


So, after working in EPA's biosolids program for over thirty years, the primary author of EPA's 503 sludge rule still couldn't explain how biosolids prevent potentially harmful levels of pollutants from being taken up by plants, animals and humans.           


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