Cattle grazing on freshly applied biosolids in Florida
Cattle grazing on freshly applied biosolids in Florida.

This is Part 2 (read Part 1 here) of an interview with David Lewis, Ph.D., formerly a senior-level research microbiologist at EPA-ORD. He currently serves as director of research for the Focus for Health Foundation. Dr. Lewis was terminated by EPA for publishing two articles in Nature that raised concerns over the 503 sludge rule and is one of the most prominent scientific voices in the growing opposition to biosolids land application. Dr. Lewis’ publications are frequently cited as an example of solid, unbiased scientific evidence of the danger posed by this practice. Dr. Lewis kindly agreed to an interview for MOTHER EARTH NEWS addressing the issue of agricultural use of sewage and industrial sludge, aka biosolids.

Lidia: Dr. Lewis, thank you again for helping to address this issue. I would like to follow up on our previous conversation by asking about your research, and how EPA reacted when you published articles in Nature that raised concerns over the 503 sludge rule. First, what role did citizens impacted by land application of treated sewage sludges play in your research?
Dr Lewis: We studied 48 individuals at ten sludge application sites in the US and Canada, plus five additional cases where an outbreak of staphylococcal infections occurred. We reviewed county land application records and the residents’ medical records. We also collected environmental samples, and used an air dispersion model to potentially rule out exposure to sludge as the cause of adverse effects.

Lidia: Can you give us an example of what you discovered?
Dr Lewis: In a neighborhood in New Hampshire, for example, my coworkers and I found that most, but not all, residents reported burning eyes, burning throat, and severe difficulty breathing. Copious amounts of thick mucus collected in their airways whenever they inhaled dusts blowing from piles of biosolids. The proportions of residents reporting symptoms steadily increased with increasing amounts of time that they were exposed to biosolids; and the symptoms steadily decreased as they lived farther away from the biosolids.

One young man stopped breathing and died as he slept under an open window where biosolids dusts were blowing in and collecting on his bedsheets. We cultured bacteria from frozen samples of biosolids collected at the time of his death, and ran DNA analyses. We found an unusual pathogen was proliferating in the biosolids, which is known to cause sudden respiratory failure and death when inhaled with dust particles.

Lidia: How did EPA react?
Dr Lewis: The head of EPA's Office of Wastewater Management in Washington, DC, and one of his subordinates, met on two occasions with executives of Synagro Corporation. Synagro is the leading U.S. company in the biosolids business. The EPA subordinate requested Synagro’s help in discrediting our research. Synagro emailed him and his boss a white paper containing false allegations of research misconduct against me.

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