Revealed: salmonella, toxic chemicals and plastic found in sewage spread on farmland



Secret Environment Agency report finds sewage sludge destined for English fields contaminated with microplastics, weedkiller, and “persistent organic pollutants”

by Crispin Dowler and Zach Boren

A secret report obtained by Unearthed has revealed serious weaknesses in the Environment Agency’s controls on an industry that spreads millions of tonnes of sewage sludge on farmland each year.

Investigators commissioned by the agency found sewage waste destined for English crops contaminated with dangerous “persistent organic pollutants” like dioxins, fuerans, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons at “levels that may present a risk to human health”.

They reported evidence that these sludges, which are routinely spread as fertiliser on hundreds of farms, were widely contaminated with microplastics that could ultimately leave soil “unsuitable for agriculture”.

They found various cases of sludge treated with lime in an attempt to kill harmful bugs, but which still tested positive for salmonella or “high concentrations of e-coli”. These bacteria can cause serious or even fatal infections.

And they warned that the task of regulating this “landspreading” industry was “becoming more difficult”, because the Environment Agency (EA) staff responsible were being hit with “increased time pressures and reduced budgets”.

The report – which proposed a suite of reforms to landspreading regulation – was handed to the agency in late 2017. But neither the environmental regulator nor the government has so far made changes in response, and the findings have remained secret until now.

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Pharmaceutical and Personal Care Products: From Wastewater Treatment into Agro-Food Systems

Pharmaceutical and Personal Care Products: From Wastewater Treatment into Agro-Food Systems
Qiuguo Fu, Tomer Malchi, Laura J. Carter, Hui Li, Jay Gan, and Benny Chefetz
Environmental Science & Technology 2019 53 (24), 14083-14090
DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.9b06206

ABSTRACT

Irrigation with treated wastewater (TWW) and application of biosolids introduce numerous pharmaceutical and personal care products (PPCPs) into agro-food systems. While the use of TWW and biosolids has many societal benefits, introduction of PPCPs in production agriculture poses potential food safety and human health risks. A comprehensive risk assessment and management scheme of PPCPs in agro-food systems is limited by multiple factors, not least the sheer number of investigated compounds and their diverse structures. Here we follow the fate of PPCPs in the water-soil-produce continuum by considering processes and variables that influence PPCP transfer and accumulation. By analyzing the steps in the soil-plant-human diet nexus, we propose a tiered framework as a path forward to prioritize PPCPs that could have a high potential for plant accumulation and thus pose greatest risk. This article examines research progress to date and current research challenges, highlighting the potential value of leveraging existing knowledge from decades of research on other chemicals such as pesticides. A process-driven scheme is outlined to derive a short list that may be used to refocus our future research efforts on PPCPs and other analogous emerging contaminants in agro-food systems.

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Questions Remain About Using Treated Sewage on Farms


Spreading biosolids—which include human and industrial waste—on farmland helps cut down on synthetic fertilizer. But it may also pollute water supplies and expose people to harmful chemicals.

By Tom Perkins
FARMING, Food Safety, HEALTH
Posted on: January 30, 2020

Each day, about 20 million gallons of sewage flows into the city of Tacoma’s wastewater treatment plants.

The water is separated, treated, and discharged into the Puget Sound, which leaves behind sludge—a mix of human excrement, industrial waste, and everything else that ends up in Tacoma’s sewers. The plants further treat the product to reduce pathogens, bacteria, heavy metals, and odors, and convert it into a fertilizer called biosolids, which is high in phosphorus, nitrogen, and other nutrients that help plants grow.

Tacoma produces about 5,000 dry tons of biosolids annually and sells it in bags under the brand name TAGRO to about 9,000 customers at local hardware stores, as well as to urban gardeners and farmers in the Tacoma region.

“The focus here has been on recycling and the production of beneficial products—clean water, energy, and soil amendment fertilizer … including biosolids,” said Dan Thompson, division manager of business operations for TAGRO.
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Over 50 percent of the approximately 130 million wet tons of sludge produced nationally each year is treated and applied to cropland, which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) notes is less than 1 percent of U.S. farmland. As a fertilizer, it’s popular with some farmers because most wastewater treatment plants give it away for free or sell it at prices that are below than the cost of synthetic fertilizers.

The use of biosolids in agriculture is increasingly coming under fire as a potential health and environmental threat, however. While some see it as an effective way to close the loop on recycling waste, some scientists, health professionals, and advocates say using biosolids in agriculture is poisoning the nation’s farmland and compounding a number of health risks. Advocates argue that without stronger, comprehensive regulations that cover what types of waste can be used in biosolids—and what waste industries are allowed to send into public sewer systems—the nation is taking unknown risks with its food and water supplies, not to mention the health of farmers and people living in farm communities.

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Trump EPA Sued for Putting Millions of Lives at Risk With Rollback of Chemical Safety Rules

"We are fighting for the lives and safety of our families and workers. Our lives are more valuable than the bottom line of a few chemical barons."
by Jake Johnson, Common Dreams staff writer


A chemical plant of TPC Group is shrouded by smoke as the fire continues in Port Neches, Texas on Nov. 27, 2019. (Photo: Steven Song/Xinhua via Getty Images)

A coalition of more than a dozen environmental groups on Thursday sued the Trump administration for rolling back chemical disaster prevention regulations, a move they say has endangered millions of lives.

"By killing these critical protections, millions of people living near chemical facilities in the United States are put in harm's way," said the coalition represented by environmental advocacy organization Earthjustice. "We are fighting for the lives and safety of our families and workers. Our lives are more valuable than the bottom line of a few chemical barons."

The rollback of the Obama-era Chemical Disaster Rule was finalized by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) last month despite urgent warnings that the decision would put the health and safety of people who live near chemical plants at risk. The EPA's new rule, which the environmental coalition said is illegal, took effect Thursday morning.

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Salmon on Prozac? A new study will look at what King County's wastewater chemicals do to fish and orcas

The King County Council committed nearly $400,000 to better understand how discharges from its three largest plants affect juvenile salmon and the southern resident orcas that feed on them.

by Hannah Weinberger / November 7, 2019 / Updated at 2:07p.m. on Nov. 7, 2019



King County's West Point treatment plant in Seattle’s Discovery Park, Nov. 4, 2019. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

In 2016, the international media erupted with reports of “salmon on Prozac” found near two wastewater treatment plants in Bremerton and Tacoma. A research team led by Dr. Jim Meador, a research fish biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Northwest Fisheries Science Center, discovered concentrations of common medications, chemicals such as fungicides and even cocaine in wastewater effluent, local estuaries and the tissue of nearby juvenile salmon. Even fish in the Nisqually estuary — more than 20 miles from the nearest test treatment plants — showed signs of contamination. 

The study estimated that, each year, all 106 Puget Sound treatment plants could be collectively discharging 97,000 pounds of chemicals into the Sound. Over the past few decades, there has been considerable growth in not only the number of possible contaminants in our waters, but also the human population responsible for pollution. Public concern has risen to match.

Now, a new study funded by King County and spearheaded by Meador aims to go beyond the sensational “salmon on cocaine” headlines to get us closer to understanding what this means for the life cycles of salmon and orcas that eat them. It has become a frequent topic of discussion within state government — especially after the Governor’s Orca Task Force made reducing exposure to pollution a top priority.

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Biosolids: mix human waste with toxic chemicals, then spread on crops

Dairy cows rest outside at Stoneridge Farm in Arundel, Maine, in August 2019. The farm was forced to shut down after sludge spread on the land was linked to high levels of PFAS in the milk. Photograph: Robert F Bukaty/AP


Residual sludge from treating waste water has been turned into a money-spinner but what are the costs to health of ‘the most pollutant-rich manmade substance on Earth’?


By some estimates, Americans send about 300m pounds of feces daily from the nation’s toilets to wastewater treatment plants.


While the water is cleaned and discharged, the remaining toxic sewage sludge stays at the treatment plant, and it’s what Sierra Club environmentalist Nancy Raine calls “the most pollutant-rich manmade substance on Earth”.


This “biosolid” sludge is expensive to dispose of because it must be landfilled, but the waste management industry is increasingly using a money-making alternative – repackaging the sludge as fertilizer and injecting it into the nation’s food chain.


Now the practice is behind a growing number of public health problems. Spreading pollutant-filled biosolids on farmland is making people sick, contaminating drinking water and filling crops, livestock and humans with everything from pharmaceuticals to PFAS.


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