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Herald-Tribune
Southwest Florida
August 17, 2003

The hazards of sludge


Editorial series will examine EPA's flimsy science, lax regulation. What environmental regulators don't know about pathogens and viruses in sewage sludge could hurt you. And what terrorists might know about those disease-causing agents could someday be used to kill you.

This week, Herald-Tribune editorials will describe how the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other regulators have failed to adequately examine the potential impacts -- on human health, the environment and national security -- of a common practice: the disposal of treated sewage sludge on agricultural land.

Farmed out Sludge is, in essence, the gunk left over from the treatment of sewage.

About 60 percent of the sludge produced nationwide is dumped on farmland. In Florida, some of that sludge is even spread near creeks and rivers that supply drinking water and flow into coastal estuaries used by swimmers, boaters and fishermen.

Tons and tons of sludge are disposed of in DeSoto County. Some people who live near the dumping grounds contend the practice has made them ill; some scientists fear the pollutants contained in the sludge dumped in DeSoto have distant but deleterious effects in Charlotte Harbor.

In the series that begins today, we will call upon state and federal regulators to:

Conduct extensive scientific research to determine the risks posed by land-applied sewage sludge. Ban the use of Class B or Class A sludge on land within several thousand feet of any waterway or occupied building. Sponsor epidemiological studies in communities where people say sludge is making them sick.

Urge governments to stop using sludge on farmland and, instead, find alternative disposal methods.

Links to terrorism and pollution?

Our editorials will also examine the overlooked but frightening potential of a link between sludge-dumping and bioterrorism. Editorials will report that some scientists and members of Congress believe much more must be done to prevent terrorists from using biological agents and sludge as weapons of mass destruction.

Microbiologist David L. Lewis, a former EPA scientist, will be a key figure in this series. Lewis, who was terminated by the EPA on May 28, advocated conducting DNA studies to determine whether Charlotte Harbor has been contaminated by human viruses and pathogens contained in sewage sludge dumped upstream in DeSoto County. Lewis also urged the EPA to pursue microbiological research in order to assess how terrorists might use viruses and pathogens to harm Americans or threaten the United States.

Unfortunately, Lewis was forced to leave the EPA, on his 55th birthday, because he openly criticized the EPA's sewage sludge policies for years.

Lewis' story illustrates the troubling lack of reliance on science in the EPA's decision-making and, according to two U.S. senators, his dismissal undermines the agency's commitment to national security.

What a waste.

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