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U.S. SEWAGE SLUDGE STANDARDS NEED NEW SCIENTIFIC BASIS

H2Info News
07/17/2002

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's standards that govern using treated sewage sludge on soil are based on outdated science, says a new report from the National Academies' National Research Council. The agency should update its standards using improved methods for assessing health risks, and should further study whether treated sewage sludge causes health problems for workers who apply it to land and for residents who live nearby, added the committee that wrote the report. More rigorous enforcement of the standards is needed as well.

Under a 1993 Clean Water Act rule, sewage sludge can be applied to land if it is sufficiently treated to limit concentrations of certain chemicals and reduce disease-causing pathogens. Sewage sludge that meets these standards is referred to as biosolids. Depending on the extent of treatment, biosolids may be applied as a fertilizer where there is limited public exposure to it, such as farms and forests, or on sites with more public contact such as parks, golf courses, lawns, and home gardens. Since 1992, when a ban on ocean dumping was instituted, applying biosolids to land has reduced the amount of sewage sludge that would otherwise need to be buried in landfills or incinerated. About 5.6 million tons of sewage sludge are used or disposed of each year in the United States, and 60 percent of that is used for land application.

Methods for assessing the health risks posed by exposure to chemicals have evolved substantially since the 1993 biosolids rule was established. In addition, EPA used an unreliable 1988 survey to identify hazardous chemicals in sewage sludge when it set the standards, and other chemicals have since been found to be of potential concern. A new survey and revised risk assessments are needed, the committee said. The revised risk assessments also should reflect the potential for regional variations in climate, water flow, and biosolids characteristics, and should be designed to protect individuals against realistic maximum exposures.

The report Biosolids Applied to Land: Advancing Standards and Practices is available for sale at www.nap.edu/catalog/10426.html?onpi_newsdoc070202 and the press release announcing the report is available at www4.nationalacademies.org/news.nsf/isbn/0309084865?OpenDocument (Source: River Info).

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