Last month, Professor P.K. Sibley et al. wrote an article in the Port Stanley News
on the questionable practice of applying sewer sludge (aka biosolids) on farmland.
There are many scientists who do argue an opposing view to that of Dr. Sibley's
- and argue that disposing of a city's toxic sewage in this manner presents a serious
threat to health.
Recently, our neighbours down south just had an open hearing on this very issue.
(see House Democratic Policy Committee- Re: Public Hearing on sewage sludge, Date:
August 29, 2016 - Please read Prof. Caroline Snyder's address to that committee,
which can be read here -
The public has the right to hear from professionals like Dr. Thomas Maler, who has
spoken up about the very real threat of superbugs multiplying in water treatment
facilities, and not being eliminated before being applied to land. As he notes,
there are two obvious steps that should be taken by cities interested in safeguarding
the public's health: "1) install a small sewage treatment in each hospital so that
they don't spread the superbugs into the general sewage and 2) use tertiary treatment
in ALL sewage treatment plants and gasify the sludge from each, certainly not spread
it on land as a fertilizer, that is insanity." Or as he has said elsewhere, "I find
it unbelievable that governments allows the spreading of sludge that already contains
thousands of toxins, superbugs, viruses and probably/possibly prions."
There are specialists like Dr. Rayne, who has written about the potential problems
around releasing Flame Retardants (PBDE's) and other chemicals into the environment.
As he has written, "An unimaginably large number of chemical and biological contaminants
exist in these materials (sewer sludge), and they persist in the product up to,
and after, land disposal. Scientific investigations have identified only a tiny
fraction of the total contaminant load." Specifically on PBDE's, he has noted, "There
are 209 different PBDEs, each of which has a unique toxicology and environmental
fate. PBDEs have been studied around the world for several decades, and despite
many millions of dollars in research and thousands of dedicated researchers, we
still have a very poor understanding of the true risks from their release into the
A recent paper by SFU Professor Bruce Lanphear, outlines the dangers of low-level
environmental toxins on the developing brain. In light of the constant spreading
of sewer sludge, containing countless chemicals and toxins, throughout our farmlands
and forests, this is very concerning. As Lanphear writes, "Over the past 50 years,
it has become clear that low-level exposures to environmental toxins can result
in substantial disease and disability ... We can no longer deny the substantial
if insidious impact that environmental toxins have on the developing brain." Surely
any rational person can see that eliminating the toxic sewer sludge pathway is one
strategy that we should be pursuing. We spend all that time, effort and money taking
those toxins out of the waste water stream - why on earth would we carelessly go
spreading them back into the environment, thereby creating a ticking time bomb for
the next generation? This is selfish, short-sighted and reckless!
Prof. Lanphear is not alone in sounding the alarm. Dr. Richard Honour has also been
alerting the public to the dangers of adding to the levels of toxins in our environment.
Dr. Honour has noted that, "Few if any governments appreciate that nearly all chronic
diseases are caused by long-term exposure to low levels of environmental contaminants
and pollutants." We should be trying to minimize this exposure, not amplifying it.
This is a growing concern, and there are now yearly conferences on these low level
toxicity threats. In particular, the "Halifax Project Task Force" is focused on
"Assessing the Carcinogenic Potential of Low Dose Exposures to Chemical Mixtures
in the Environment". 174 scientists from prominent institutions in 28 countries
were recently formed into 12 teams and focused on the possibility that complex mixtures
of commonly encountered chemicals in the environment may be capable of carcinogenic
effects that have yet to be fully appreciated. This is a serious ticking time bomb,
and the disposal of our city's toxins onto rural environments is certainly adding
to these concerns.
What the public needs to know is that there are truly independent scientists (like
the ones I have just mentioned, doing good science, without any relationship with
the sludge industry whatsoever) and there are many others who work with members
of the sludge industry, and who have financial ties to the sludge industry (which
can take many forms, such as scholarships, equipment "gifts" , funding allowances,
department chair endowments etc.). Now, if we were looking at a research project
about possible health risks associated with cigarette smoking, would you believe
you are getting the whole story, the naked truth, from a laboratory that was working
directly with the tobacco industry? Or believe research that was funded in part
by Big Tobacco? No, no rational person would. There has been a great deal written
lately about this issue of corruption within academia and within the scientific
establishment. Dr. David Lewis' recent book, "Science for Sale" makes this case
very strongly. Independent, arm's length science is becoming harder to find, but
we as a society must insist upon it - our health, (and the environment's health)
depends upon it.
So, yes, there is another side to this story and it needs to be heard. A lot depends
on it being heard. The sludge industry has controlled this narrative for too long.
Cities and governments have been quite happy to give over their responsibility in
this matter to these operations, as this method of "handling" this toxic waste,
spreading it thinly throughout rural landscapes, is the cheapest method to hand
(it may however have huge costs down the line - see Dr. Honour's article, "What
is the Cost of Free Sewage Sludge?" (http://biosolidsbattleblog.blogspot.ca/2016_06_05_archive.html).
We expect more from our government leaders and decision makers. Short-term solutions,
which may jeopardize future generations will not do.
A growing number of scientists and citizens see the sense in applying the "precautionary
principle" to this reckless practice. There is just too much at stake here. We do
have alternatives. More and more, cities are moving away from land application toward
gasification / pyrolysis, as this is both Greener and Safer! As Dr. Rayne says,
"Governments are playing Russian roulette with sewage sludge. Over time, there is
a high probability this game will be lost at the public's expense."