Organic Consumers Association

Campaigning for health, justice, sustainability, peace, and democracy

Farmers Deceived About Sewage Sludge Safety

On March 27th Citizens for Sludge-Free Land sent a letter to the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality and US EPA Region 3 that information provided to Virginia landowners about using sewage sludges as fertilizer is deceptive. Land application permits are being granted in several Virginia counties without informing farmers of the serious risks associated with this practice. The VA code specifies, that to be valid, these permits can only be granted with the informed consent of the landowner.

The Federal Clean Water Act defines sewage sludge as a pollutant. Most of the pollutants that sewage treatment plants remove from wastewater concentrate in the resulting sludge. Exempt from hazardous and solid waste laws, sludge is being spread on agricultural land, despite mounting scientific evidence and field reports that using this contaminated waste as a cheap fertilizer is neither safe, beneficial, nor sustainable.

The Virginia Cooperative Extension Service as well as Nutri-Blend Inc., the company that needs permits to spread sludge, are failing to provide landowners with the necessary facts, so they can make an informed decision whether or not to treat their land with sludge. The widely distributed Extension Service biosolids fact sheets-- although deceptively dated May 9, 2009-- provide out-dated, inaccurate, incomplete, and in some cases, misleading information. They overstate the alleged benefits and totally ignore the known risks and recent documented evidence of adverse health and environmental impacts linked to sludge use. The fact sheets and brochures give the illusion that land applying sewage sludge, a complex and variable mixture of human waste and thousands of industrial chemicals, many of which are toxic and persistent, is a safe and normal agricultural practice.

The information provided to landowners deceptively downplays the health risks of exposure to odors, odorant compounds, endotoxins, bacteria-laden dusts, and toxic gases at land application sites that can cause severe and permanent lung damage. Nor are farmers told that typical sludges generated in industrialized urban areas contain not only pathogens, but also PCBs, dioxins, carcinogens, pharmaceuticals, flame retardants, and hormone disrupting chemicals that can damage developing organisms in parts per trillion. Many of these pollutants do not break down once they are applied to land. Worse, partial breakdown products are often more toxic than the parent material. Yet federal regulations require testing and standards for only nine toxic metals. Perhaps most important, the information provided to farmers fails to disclose that the National Academies of Science has indicated that while there are serious health concerns associated with many of the constituents of sewage sludge, there is too much uncertainty to scientifically predict the true health and environmental risks, when this complex waste mixture is applied to land.

Finally, farmers are not told that sludge-exposure has been linked to illnesses, human deaths, livestock mortalities, groundwater pollution, and permanently degraded land. Unless there is a true and accurate disclosure of all the risks associated with this practice, there can be no true consent.

Without informed consent, the state should not be issuing permits. 

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