EPA’s Inspector General is wanting the Agency’s Office of Water to answer a question that troubles many of EPA’s scientists, such as myself, who have worked in EPA’s Office of Research & Development (ORD): “Does the EPA have and implement controls over the land application of sewage sludge that protect human health and the environment?”
The answer to that question has eluded two previous administrations, whose Inspectors General concluded that EPA cannot assure the public that land application of sewage sludge, which contains ppm-levels of pharmaceuticals, flame retardants and every other industrial pollutant, is safe.
Recently, I participated in a conference dealing with this question in Vancouver, BC. A senior engineer assured the audience that Canada’s municipalities follow the U.S. EPA’s guidance regarding land application of sewage sludge, a.k.a. biosolids, and that adverse health effects reported by citizens are baseless.
Taking her best shot at answering the same question EPA’s Inspector General is asking the Office of Water, she said it would take 37-thousand years for a wastewater treatment plant worker to be exposed to the same amount of ibuprofen in sewage sludge that it would take to equal a single capsule of the drug. There’s no call for concern, she argued.
When it was my turn to speak, I disagreed. Soils are composed of particles of organic matter and clay that attract chemical pollutants like a magnet. Hazardous chemical wastes collect on their surfaces at hundreds of thousands, even millions, of times higher concentrations than they ever occur in water where EPA strictly regulates their concentrations even at parts-per-billion levels.
Consider, for example, what happens when a single soil particle coated with high concentrations of cancer-causing chemicals is inhaled. Even if it contacts just one cell in a person’s lungs, that may be all it takes for lung cancer to develop and spread. Although the overall concentration in soil may be very low, the concentrations of chemical pollutants on the surfaces of each and every particle that could directly contact a living cell in someone’s respiratory or gastrointestinal tract may be extremely high.
Although Congress passed Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, but no Clean Soil Act, soil is one of the most important parts of the environment to shield from pollution. Legislatively, it represents a colossal loophole in environmental protection—one that EPA is taking advantage of at great cost to public health and the environment.
In 1992, EPA-ORD officially dubbed the Office of Water’s science in this area as “sludge magic,” and refused to support its 503 sludge rule. In response, Office of Water administrators approved millions of dollars in federal assistance agreements for land grant universities to conduct and publish research supporting its position that all toxic organic chemicals, and virtually all heavy metals, in sewage sludge are completely harmless regardless of their concentrations.
Since the Federal Grants and Cooperative Agreement Act prohibits assistance agreements that directly benefit the government, the Office of Water’s National Biosolids Public Acceptance Campaign, as it was called, may not have even been legal.
One way to answer the question posed by EPA’s Inspector General is to consider how EPA handles polluted soils elsewhere. For example, it takes the opposite approach when dealing with soils at brownfield sites contaminated with all the same chemicals found in sewage sludges.
There, EPA delegates its responsibilities to the states, which base their controls on a different body of science than the one EPA created to support its regulation on toxic chemicals in sewage sludge. In British Columbia, I illustrated how EPA’s controls on sewage sludges are completely at odds with the controls states apply to soils contaminated with the same chemicals at brownfield redevelopment projects approved by EPA.
For example, I discovered that a developer in Georgia had spread topsoil containing approximately 3 ppm of benzo[a]pyrene (BAP), a powerful carcinogen, on the children’s playground at a brownfield site EPA approved for government-subsidized housing. Based on the scientific literature, the State of Georgia limits BAP concentrations in residential topsoil to approximately half that concentration.
After testing soil samples I collected, the developer had to remove all the contaminated topsoil, and bury it in a landfill. By contrast, BAP in most sewage sludges range as high as 4.5 ppm. Not that it matters, because EPA allows sewage sludge containing any amount of any toxic organic chemicals it regulates to be spread anywhere, including on children’s playgrounds.
The grim reality is that EPA appears to be doing more damage than good. It’s time to delegate its regulatory responsibilities to the states.
David L. Lewis, Ph.D., a former senior-level EPA Research Microbiologist, is the Research Director for the Focus for Health Foundation in Watchung, NJ.