Saturday, July 12th, 2008
Carola Vyhnak, Toronto Star
July 12, 2008
Worries grow over ‘stew’ of chemicals spread on farmland
Feces, urine, vomit, blood. Synthetic hormones, heart pills, antibiotics, illicit drugs, Viagra. Bacteria, viruses, E. coli, parasites. Household cleaners, shampoo, solvents, pesticides and traces of arsenic, mercury, cadmium, lead, dioxins and flame retardants.
Each day, this chemical cocktail is piped from our homes, businesses and industries to sewage plants across the province. The water is filtered and reclaimed.
The solid waste that remains is turned into biosolids, more commonly called sludge. For more than 30 years, Ontario’s sludge has been trucked out to farmland for use as fertilizer.
Then in 1996, the province, which monitors sludge dispersal, increased promotion of the nutrient-rich goo to farmers as a beneficial alternative to chemical fertilizers. Officials insist sludge is tested and safe and that there are no documented cases of adverse health effects when requirements are followed.
But some rural residents who live near properties where sludge has been used have argued for years that what ends up on fields isn’t benign fertilizer, but a “toxic stew” that’s harming them and the environment.
“It takes the air out of your lungs and burns your eyes. It’s nasty, nasty stuff,” said Crystal Chordis, a resident of Corbetton north of Orangeville.
Country-dwellers exposed to sludge complain of a litany of ailments including respiratory problems, diarrhea, headaches, nausea, rashes, fatigue and pneumonia.
Ontario’s acting chief medical officer of health, Dr. David Williams, says a clear link to adverse health effects hasn’t been established. He is satisfied that the practice of using biosolids on farmers’ fields is safe and says the process of monitoring possible health issues is “active and ongoing.”
In parts of the United States, several deaths have been linked to sludge exposure. In Ontario, several citizens’ group including those in Prince Edward County and near Orangeville have succeeded in halting or restricting sludging.
Sweden, Switzerland, France and Holland are among the countries that have either banned or introduced tougher standards on the use of biosolids as fertilizer. Instead, they are burning more of it in energy-from-waste plants.
Since 2002, Ellen Harrison, recently retired director of the Waste Management Institute, a research and training branch of Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., has argued for a ban on sludge application. She expresses frustration over the paucity of health studies.
One of the few is a recently published report by researchers from the University of Toledo in Ohio, which found a significant increase in problems such as abdominal bloating, jaundice and weight loss among residents exposed to treated fields.
The 2005 study surveyed 613 people over one month and researchers also noted an increased risk for respiratory, gastrointestinal and some chronic diseases such as multiple sclerosis. Four hundred and thirty-seven of the people surveyed lived within 1.6 kilometres of fields treated with biosolids, 176 lived further away.
In 2002, under pressure from concerned residents, the City of Ottawa commissioned a review on the health and safety of spreading biosolids.
Struck by the lack of medical information, the consultants concluded that a “surveillance system for monitoring health effects from biosolids does not appear to exist in any jurisdiction.
“While anecdotal cases are occasionally reported by the news media, few of these are investigated by trained teams of agronomists, engineers, toxicologists, microbiologists or public health professionals, let alone make their way into peer-reviewed research literature,” the final report read.
After a two-year moratorium, sludge-spreading resumed in Ottawa.
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