- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 5, 2002

RICHMOND (AP) Sewage sludge used as a farm fertilizer often contains toxic chemicals that may damage soil, harm fish and pollute wells, the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) says.
The chemicals, called alkylphenols, can hurt reproduction and development in animals. They are used in the production of some heavy-duty detergents, paints and pesticides.
Sludge is spread on farmland as free fertilizer in 32 Virginia counties.
A recent VIMS study found alkylphenols in sludge samples from 11 sewage-treatment plants across the country, including three in Virginia. The research follows an earlier VIMS study that found other problem chemicals, called BDEs, in sludge.
"We don't think it's reasonable to say [sludge spreading] is perfectly safe, based on the presence of these chemicals," said Robert C. Hale, a VIMS environmental chemist.
It's also too early to say sludge is unsafe, Mr. Hale said. He called for more research to learn what chemicals are in sludge and what effects they have. While the unknowns persist, it's unwise to put sludge on fields, he said.
The alternative is to dump sludge in landfills an expensive proposition for local governments.
Spokesmen for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Virginia Department of Health and a sludge-disposal company said the VIMS findings don't alter their view that sludge spreading is safe.
"We just don't see sewage sludge as being a high risk," said Alan Hais, the EPA's sludge-regulation manager.
Opponents, including many people living near farms, say sludge is dangerous and that it stinks. Supporters, including many farmers and urban governments, say putting sludge on farmland nourishes the soil and cheaply disposes of the waste.
VIMS researchers found alkylphenol levels in sludge from 5 to 887 parts per million, or ppm. Other research has shown earthworms suffer reproductive problems in soil containing slightly more than 3 ppm.
"You could alter the ecosystem of the soil," Mr. Hale said. "You could potentially knock worms out of the soil." Worms aerate soil and provide other benefits.
As sludge mixes with soil, the level of alkylphenols is diluted. Still, Mr. Hale said, "When you start tinkering with the soil, you may be modifying its long-term ability to sustain crops."
The chemicals also could seep through soil into well water, or run off into streams and hurt fish, Mr. Hale said.
Alkylphenols' harmful effects are well-documented in animals, particularly fish, Mr. Hale said.
Richard Anderson, a spokesman for Synagro Technologies Inc., a major sludge-disposal company, said alkylphenols aren't a big concern because they break down into benign compounds.
The EPA's Mr. Hais said sludge-spreading rules no spreading near streams, no spreading in wet weather should protect fish. And well water shouldn't be at risk because sludge is applied "in relatively small amounts" across wide fields, Mr. Hais said.
Since 1995, England, Germany, France and the Scandinavian countries have restricted the use of some alkylphenols in household-cleaning products. The chemicals continue to be widely produced and used in the United States.
There are no limits for alkylphenols in U.S. sludge.
VIMS declined to name the sewage plants it studied.


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