Sewage sludge applied on farmland making neighbors sick....
    Topic posted March 19, 2012 by JenWMember, last edited March 23, 2012 
    1366 Views, 9 Comments
    Sewage sludge applied on farmland making neighbors sick. What should they test for?

    Received a desperate phone call from rural property owners whose neighbor was paid to take sewage sludge from a nearby large municipality (industrial & hospital waste sources would be included). Apparently the incinerator was shut down - this is unprocessed sludge. It was applied 4x/year over a 2-year period at a rate of 15 Tons/acre over a 300-acre property. The odor during application was unbearable, and they continue to get whiffs of it when it is damp outside. Odor has been described as rotten fish, dead bodies, sour, lime, and medicinal. DNR reportedly agrees it is an issue, but currently does not have regulations to do anything; sludge tested ok for nitrates & heavy metals according to DNR. The property owner was so sick that they abandoned their house. Health symptoms were vomiting, diarrhea, watery eyes, and burning nose. Symptoms went away after they left the property, but they return as soon as the owners return to their property. Livestock of other neighbors have reportedly died, and others have experienced animal birth defects. They are trying to build a case for a civil lawsuit. There is surface water drainage from the neighbors property that they would like to sample, but don't know what to test it for. They also suspect the dust from the sludge has been deposited everywhere. What does everyone think about a sampling approach/parameter list?  They do not have access/permission to sample the sludge directly.




    • craiglincoln


      I sympathize with both sides here, as a professional who works with a large biosolids program. The wastewater treatment plant appears to have a difficult situation with the breakdown of an incinerator -- one of the risks of relying on incineration. The neighbors have a new activity going on next to their house, albeit an activity that isn't out of the norm for agricultural areas.

      A few notes:

       "Unprocessed sewage sludge" cannot be applied to land. All biosolids, as sludge is referred to when treated for land application, have to comply with EPA standards. You can find info here: Generally, biosolids are produced by lime stabiliation, thermal anaerobic digestion, or composting or aerobic digestion.

      The EPA's risk asessment was the most extensive ever at the time it was completed in the early 1990. Based on a National Academies report that the EPA requested, changes are being made to update it.

      The wastewater treatment plant has to test for metals and apply biosolids at standard agronomic rates for nitrogen to eliminate nitrate problems.

      Industries have to comply with pretreatment standards to remove chemicals that can't be treated in wastewater treatment; local states and plants are responsible for enforcing the standards. That info is public knowledge. The EPA conducts regular review of its risk assessment and samples biosolids nationwide for hundreds of constituents to determine if new regulations are needed. Detection is common, because detection methods are sensitive. The wastewater profession is investing lots of money to determine whether some long-term harm could result. Changes will be made if needed. So far, panels of independent scientists and epidemiologists have not found documentation or a plausible biological theory for illnesses from biosolids. (See link above and

      There are a number of ways of monitoring odor strength and character. A lot of states are writing guidelines and regulations. The tricky part is figuring out how to measure and what standards to follow, particularly in farming areas, when the farm was there first. The odor descriptions are what you would expect from decay of organic compounds; but are very different than what we normally experience and generally characterized as offensive. Odor scientists characterize them as malodors. The reaction to odors can cause health problems, and odor is what probably needs to be addressed here first.

      As far as the reports of livestock problems, the local Extension or a veterinary is the best way to start in order to get a good diagnosis.

      In summary, by and large it's already known what's in the biosolids and risk assessments have been performed and biosolids are extensively researched and tested. Odors are an issue to be addressed by the treatment plant and the farmer, and hopefully all parties can sit down and work out a solution. The treatment plant is dealing with a difficult situation, the farmer is trying to make a living in a challenging industry, and neighbors want to enjoy rural life. Approached with open minds, all sides can find an accomodation.

      • JenW
        Well written & thought out. Thanks for the help! I am not immersed in this project yet, and may not ever be. From my brief phone conversations, I get the impression that the sludge spreading has ceased, and the damage is done (but continues to linger). The neigbors who contacted me intend to sue for damages. They cannot live there, nor can they sell (or rent) the farmhouse/property in this condition.
      • Caroline Snyder
         Hundreds of sludge-exposed neighbors in 28 states have reported similar illnesses. When they moved, their symptoms disappeared. The most recent National Academy of Sciences (NAS) biosolids report warned that current state and federal sludge regulations are based on outdated science, no science, and on outdated risk assessment models. Of the tens of thousands industrial chemicals currently in commerce today, most end up, concentrated in sewage sludge. Since only a small fraction of these hazardous and toxic materials are monitored and tested we do NOT know what is in sludge, especially since its composition changes from day to day, depending what industries, hospitals, fracking operations, superfund sites, discharge into the sewage system that particular day. EPA, according to its own rules, is supposed to identify new toxic contaminants every two years and adjust the rules accordingly. They have not done so. Neighbors are exposed to a complex mixture of many sludge pollutants. The NAS report also warned that testing for one chemical will not identify the cause of illnesses. Sludge odor is more than a nuisance; it is a serious health problem. It means pathogens are breaking down, producing endotoxins, which, when breathed can cause serious respiratory problems. For accurate information about what sludge is, and what it does, visit
    • Tom Speight

      That sounds like a crazy situation...I'm glad someone could offer that good of an answer!

    • Geoman

      Just bid a similar project with confined cows in a residential/rual area.   We proposed a gas monitoring meter with real time readings and datalogging, plus Draeger tubes for selected compounds.   My first thought for your situation is ammonia gas may be causing the health problelms. NIOSH TWA for ammonia is 25 ppm or 18 mg/m3.  IDLH is 500 ppm.  Ammonia fumes can make me sick in about 10 minutes with the same symptoms described.   Check a MSDS sheet for more info. Raw sewage has lots of ammonia, most is removed in digestion, but depends on how well treated the sludge is.  Spread the sludge out on 40 acres and you can release a lot of gas.

      Check the runnoff for ammonia, nitrate, nitrite, BOD, coliform bacteria, and phosphorus.  Phosphorus typically has extremely stringent discharge requirements.  They may be in voilation of their application permit if there is runnoff.  My state requires berms to contain any runnoff from land application.   Good luck.

      • Tom Speight
         Would untreated sludge predictably fall somewhere between raw sewage and processed sludge, or would it be worse?
    • manno

      I agree with Geoman.  It sounds like the health effects came on rather quickly and from a distance and that would often indicate gaseous emissions. They also might want to check for H2S. Regarding the assessment effort, if you are looking for legal evidence, you (or they) need professional consulting assistance.

    • Scott

       I think there could be a wide range of compounds creating the issue.  Doing an inventory of what entities and processes are discharging to the system and contributing to the sludge would be your logical first step.  That will probably give you a laundry list of possible industrial chemicals.

      I don't disagree with the ammonia or H2S ideas, but I think that both would be recognizable odors on approach.  Olfactory fatigue will fairly quickly diminish the characteristic odor of each, but they should be detectable briefly or from a distance. 

      Most of the physical symptoms you mentioned are not terribly indicative of a particular compound.  I don't recall ever hearing of odors causing diarrhea, but the other symptoms could be associated with any strong odor.  H2S can cause GI issues, so there may be a link there.  Ammonia and H2S both could also lead to other symptoms:  skin irritation, respiratory irritation and/or chest pain (Ammonia), headaches, fatigue and dizziness (h2S).

      This could be a very complex issue, with a long, hard road to resolution.  I don't envy you or any of the neighbors involved.

    • Patrick Sutton

      The sludge was not treated, it likely contains pathogens.  I'm not sure what the exposure pathway to the neighbors would be (maybe dust), but vomitting and diarrhea sound more like acute syptoms related to bacterial and viral infections.