Could recycled sewage cause health concerns?

February 7, 2002 Posted: 2:03 PM EST (1903 GMT)

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Russell Pennock couldn't figure out what kept sickening family and friends at his Reading, Pennsylvania, home. At least eight came down with infections over just a few years, including his eldest son, who died suddenly in 1995.

Now half a dozen years later and with the assistance of a federal microbiologist, Pennock believes the cause was recycled sewage that had been spread on a property across the street as fertilizer -- a practice the government began sanctioning in the mid-1990s.

"We had repeated infections -- boils, sore throats, coughing -- but we had no clue as to what these infections were coming from," Pennock said Wednesday. "We did not even know they were putting this stuff across the street. I wouldn't have bought the property."

Today, more than 4 million tons of recycled wastewater sewage are spread on rural and suburban properties across America each year, but an internal federal investigation has found the government has done too little research to ensure humans are safe from the viruses, bacteria and toxins that are contained in the sludge.

The investigation by the inspector general of the Environmental Protection Agency cites "gaps in the science" used to approve sludge recycling in the 1990s and says the agency has cut money, staff and oversight since then despite growing safety worries.

"The agency can neither investigate nor keep track of all of the complaints of adverse health affects that are reported," the internal watchdog wrote in a draft report obtained by The Associated Press.

"There are indications that more research is needed on risks to human health from pathogens in sludge," the draft states.

The EPA said it has asked the National Research Council, a panel of distinguished scientists, to study any possible health concerns related to sludge recycling.

"It has been quite awhile since we put a rule in place, and we've asked NRC to make recommendations and give us some advice," Mike Cook, the EPA's director of wastewater and management, said Wednesday.

Cook said the agency had significantly cut money and staff for sludge oversight to deal with other clean water issues. He said the agency is setting up a program to review compliance of sludge makers and users and to review concerns in local communities ranging from odors to illness.

He stressed the EPA has no evidence to suggest sludge poses increased risks.

"We have thousand of workers in sewage treatment plants and handling biosolids all the time, every day. We have tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, handling raw manure. There is no evidence these people are any sicker than the general population," he said.

With tougher clean water and air rules and declining landfill space, the government approved using solidified wastewater sewage to spread on fields as fertilizer during the 1990s. It is most commonly spread in suburban and rural properties, especially farms.

There are two forms of sludge -- the less common is so heavily treated that is not believed to contain any detectable poisons. The other and more common recycled sludge is treated but still contains reduced levels of bacteria, viruses, toxins and parasites.

The harmful substances can include salmonella, typhoid, dysentery, hepatitis, rotaviruses, cryptosporidium and tapeworms.

EPA requires owners of fields treated with sludge to restrict human access for a period of time to let those toxins naturally degrade. Warning signs aren't required, but farmers are restricted in when they can plant crops.

When EPA approved the rules, it acknowledged additional research was needed.

The inspector general report comes amid growing concerns among some states, communities and federal scientists that recycling of solidified sewage may not be as safe as thought.

Among the concerns:

-EPA microbiologist David Lewis, a critic of recycled sludge, told a conference of scientists in November that his research into nine sludge-treated fields found nearby residents with irritated eyes, skin and airways who were 25 times more likely to contract S. aureus bacterial infections, a form of staph, than even high-risk hospital patients.

-The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's worker safety unit issued a hazard alert in 2000 for workers who prepare or spread treated sludge after finding "potentially pathogenic bacteria" in samples taken at workplaces. Several workers suffered from stomach and intestinal ailments. The hazard alert urged precautions ranging from tetanus-diphtheria immunizations to protective gear such as goggles, face shields and respirators.

-A few EPA scientists have given sworn testimony to a federal whistle-blower's group alleging the research conducted before the government approved sludge recycling was inadequate.

"They're taking a position that I viewed as indefensible from a public health standpoint," one scientist testified to the National Whistleblower Center when asked why EPA didn't post warning signs on properties treated with sludge.

Several counties in California, Florida and Virginia and 62 towns in Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania have placed new restrictions or bans on sludge recycling.