In a report released this month, EPA’s Office of Inspector General lays out in no uncertain terms that EPA’s regulation of land-applied biosolids “had weaknesses and may not fully protect human health and the environment.”
This “sewage sludge” is “solid, semisolid or liquid residue generated during the treatment of domestic sewage.” After processing at wastewater treatment plants, the resulting product “can be used for agricultural and residential soil fertilization.”
But, the EPA’s own internal assessment revealed that biosolids are routinely monitored for only nine regulated pollutants, even though studies conducted between 1989-2015 showed there more than 352 pollutants can be found in biosolids, including 61 that are designated “hazardous” or are priorities for monitoring in other programs. And we are talking about some pretty nasty stuff, according to EPA’s own documentation sewage sludge can contain pharmaceutical compounds like steroids and persistent chemicals such as flame retardants.
This program review also points out that “reduced staff and resources in the biosolids program over time” has made it difficult to address the “weaknesses identified in the program.” Many risk assessments for pollutants known to be in biosolids are incomplete and available labels and documentation “do not explain the full spectrum of pollutants in biosolids and the uncertainty regarding their safety.”
This is a damming report, one that, remember, was produced by the EPA’s own staff. Recommendations for improvement include investing in research on additional pollutants found in biosolids that should be included in regular monitoring, and improving the transparency of information available via the EPA’s website and include on labeling and other documentation.
We will be watching to see whether EPA takes their own advice and makes these important improvements to how we regulate the fertilizer that goes on our food.
EPA, “EPA Unable to Assess the Impact of Hundreds of Unregulated Pollutants in Land-Applied Biosolids on Human Health and the Environment,” At a Glance report of review by the Office of Inspector General, November 15, 2018.