Biosolids: More Harm than Good, Part 1

| 2/18/2016 10:10:00 AM

Tags: biosolids, EPA, pollutants, environmental toxins, microbiology, public health, environmental health, environmental policy, regulation, Lidia Epp, Virginia,

David Lewis, Ph.D., formerly a senior-level research microbiologist at EPA-ORD, was terminated by EPA for publishing two articles in Nature that raised concerns over the 503 sludge rule. He currently serves as director of research for the Focus for Health Foundation. Dr. Lewis kindly agreed to an interview for the MOTHER EARTH NEWS blog addressing the issue of agricultural use of sewage and industrial sludge, aka – biosolids. He 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. Read Part 1 of this interview below and Part 2 here.

Lidia: Dr. Lewis, thank you so much for taking your time to address this issue today. Let’s start with clearing up some confusion with the nomenclature. Is there a difference between “sewage sludge” and “biosolids”? Or it is just a different name for this same thing, which is simply a municipal waste?

Dr Lewis: Sewage sludge is semi-solid organic matter, mostly human feces and animal fats, which settles out at wastewater treatment plants. More than half of the sewage sludges produced in the United States are biologically and chemically treated, usually by adding lime, to reduce odors and indicator pathogen levels. Once treated, the product is called biosolids. It is repeatedly applied to farms, forests, school playgrounds, public parks and other public and private lands at rates measured in tons per acre.

Lidia: Does the EPA’s Part 503 rule, a regulation that’s intended to protect public from potential health dangers of biosolids, deliver on its promise?

6/13/2016 9:14:34 AM

What is this article/author/phD telling the common household? How should I dispose of my kitchen/bathroom waste? How does permaculture play with all this science?

3/1/2016 4:12:27 PM

Dear Steve Wilson... your quote "Class A biosolids products are subjected to further treatment by processes like composting and thermal drying, and are considered pathogen free"... Who exactly is CONSIDERING the Class A concentrated toxic sewage sludge---- PATHOGEN FREE? It is either pathogen free or not... There should be no "consideration". Maybe the 'sludge industry' that you work for or the EPA, or a state agency--- looked at it and 'considered' it pathogen free. Additionally, will it continue to BE PATHOGEN FREE? and what pathogens were tested for.. and not tested for?

2/29/2016 6:09:07 PM

Steve Wilson, a Project Manager for Brown and Caldwell, provides consulting services to the federal government and biosolids industry. Not surprisingly, he’s upset over research I published as a senior-level (GS-15) U.S. EPA Research Microbiologist in Nature and other leading peer-reviewed scientific journals documenting adverse health and environmental effects of biosolids. I was even presented the Science Achievement Award by EPA Administrator Carol Browner for my research demonstrating how climate change can affect the toxicity of chemical groups found in biosolids. This must be very disconcerting to someone who earns his living trying to convince federal agencies that “sludge magic,” as most EPA research scientists called it, is really true. That is, all of the same chemical pollutants known to cause cancer, birth defects, neurological disorders, and a host of other health problems in air and water are perfectly safe when spread on school playgrounds and home gardens at millions of times higher concentrations. He must really believe it because he uses that same “logic” to argue that biosolids “consist primarily of microbial biomass,” not human feces. Surely someone who promotes biosolids for a living must be aware that human feces is, in fact, primarily microbial biomass. David L. Lewis, Ph.D., Research Director, Focus for Health Foundation

2/29/2016 3:16:07 PM

I am very disappointed to read that Steve Wilson still has no clue about the constituents in sewage sludge processed or otherwise. If he was to look at anything other than EPA research from the 70 and 80s he would get a clear picture. He obviously works for the sewage industry. Had he read the EPA's Office of Inspector General's report 09/2014 # 14-P-0363 he would see how CFR 40-503 is failing and industrial pretreatment is a joke and has been since conception. If he was studied on the single indicator organism tests he would not make an ignorant statement that sewage sludge, processed or not, can be free of pathogens under any process. If you want truthful and factual information on CFR 40-503 may I suggest first looking at what Steve is talking about then do searches on sewage sludge for information outside the sewage industry and make your mind up from reading both. In fact if you want a real a real scare, read EPA’s CFR 40- 503 risk assessment or the EPA’s Targeted National Survey of Sewage Sludge These are the sewage heads that protect this ill-conceived practice: US Legislature / EPA, USDA, NAS / State Legislature/ State Environmental Agencies / River Authorities/ Municipalities / the multi-billion dollar Waste Water Processing Plants (WWPP), sludge dumpers and even some colleges who get grants from the state and sewage syndicates. Steve would be your typical sewage con artist. Craig Monk

2/29/2016 1:47:04 PM

I am very disappointed to read that the Mother Earth News supports "sludge activists" like Dr. Lewis. Dr. Lewis clearly doesn't even understand the fundamentals of wastewater treatment when he describes biosolids as "mostly feces and animal fats" in your interview. Biosolids consist primarily of microbial biomass from the secondary wastewater treatment process. They are commonly treated by anaerobic digestion to provide stabilization and harvest biogas for renewable energy production. Class A biosolids products are subjected to further treatment by processes like composting and thermal drying, and are considered pathogen free. The conspiracy theories described by activists are tiresome. If you want truthful information about the many benefits of biosolids recycling in agriculture, contact your local Ag Extension agent or the many legitimate science-based publications available online.

2/21/2016 1:29:12 PM

Because of so many health complaints from sludge-exposed rural neighbors, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) convened a panel to review the scientific basis of the sludge rule. Ellen Harrison, then Chair of the internationally renowned Cornell Waste Management Institute, served on the NAS panel. When deposed in 2003 she said "despite the incredible flack David was getting he put forward reasonable scientific theories backed by some research that there were plausible routes of exposure and that in fact illness might be resulting. . . . David was probably the most important player in all of this." Yet all references to Dr. Lewis' published and unpublished manuscripts were removed from the 2002 NAS report, so EPA and industry could continue to claim that sludge never made anyone sick. See Science for Sale, p. 67.

2/21/2016 11:40:12 AM

Thank you Dr. Lewis for a very helpful and informative article. Given the recent revelations in Flint, Michigan, people should be more skeptical and concerned than ever about government's failure to protect the health and safety of its citizens. This includes the EPA not effectively regulating toxic sewage sludge and that it makes its way into consumer products like compost. That people assume compost containing 'biosolids' (sic) is safe and even use it to grow food they then consume is a betrayal of the people by their government.

2/20/2016 10:28:14 PM

where is my previous post?

2/20/2016 7:04:21 PM

Having lived among 19 sludged fields that have been spread with concentrated toxic sewage sludge for 30 years... I can personally attest to the facts stated by Dr. Lewis. Disposing municipalities' toxic waste on land devastates human health, quality of life, surface and ground water, air, food quality and wildlife. Learn more by going to and see Sewage Sludge Action Network on Facebook, for day-to-day articles opposing this "practice" through out the world!

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