• Rebecca Katers

    Excellent article and series. Thank you!

    It makes sense that wastewater discharges can’t explain all the contamination being found, especially in “pristine” areas.

    In Wisconsin (and many other states), roughly 95% of all the public wastewater treatment plant sludge is LAND-SPREAD on agricultural fields statewide, after very little treatment.

    This means that literally MILLIONS of pounds of mixed industrial and household chemicals, pesticides and prescription medications are broadcast far and wide on soil surfaces every year. Some are plowed under, but then re-exposed later with future plowing, earthworm tilling, plant uptake, and plant decomposition.

    Rain and snowmelt are undoubtedly carrying these chemicals into nearby streams, rivers and lakes, especially when land-spreading is more carelessly done. Groundwater is also being contaminated.

    Also, large quantities of some of these chemicals will undoubtedly volatilize into the air (like perfume from a bottle) from millions of acres of land-spread farm fields, especially during warm weather. These airborne chemicals drift downwind and settle-out with rain and dust on “clean” lands and waters.

    We might be able to cut back on uses of some of the pesticides and antibiotics, or restrict some industrial chemicals, but we can’t stop people from taking medications.

    This means we’re going to have to improve wastewater treatment and sludge disposal … drastically.

    Unfortunately, our political processes are also “polluted” by money and power inequalities. It will be extremely expensive to clean-up all the public and private wastewater treatment systems to stop these types of environmental releases … so political resistance will be intense.

  • Rebecca Katers

    I served for 4 years on a Wisconsin DNR “Citizen Advisory Committee” (ending about 10 years ago?), which the Natural Resources Board had charged with finding a maximum “safe” level of toxic chemicals called “PCBs” (polychlorinated biphenyls) in waste sludges being spread on Wisconsin cropland.

    Our goal was to create a new “PCB Soil Criteria” that the DNR could use for regulating land-spreading.

    The DNR also created a “Technical Committee” of toxicology experts and chemists to investigate the issue and advise our committee. They sampled 50 sewage plants (large and small) and found PCBs in ALL the sludges.

    (Analysis was difficult, because samples were contaminated with a confounding variety of chemicals similar to PCBs. When I insisted on knowing what those “similar” chemicals were, we were told the most dominant one was PBDE, a worrisome flame retardant heavily used in our society.)

    Our DNR “citizen” committee consisted of roughly 25 “stakeholder” appointees … primarily lawyers, lobbyists and tech consultants representing municipal sewage treatment plants, paper industries, foundaries, and municipal harbors, because they all generated huge quantities of contaminated waste sludges every year.

    Some were already land-spreading and others wanted to start.

    Thousands of man-made chemicals (including PCBs, dioxins, pesticides and endocrine disruptors), as well as elements (lead, arsenic, mercury) are measurable in many of these waste sludges.

    Many are known toxins, but no one knows the health impacts of low-level, chronic, cumulative, life-long exposure to traces of thousands of these chemicals ALL AT ONCE from land-spreading sludges, especially combined with all our other exposure routes.

    But it’s absolutely certain that crops, livestock and FOODS are being contaminated nationwide from sludge land-spreading. And sludge is definitely contaminating our groundwater, rivers, lakes and wildlife nationwide, to varying degrees.

    Significant health risks seem likely, but this is a poorly researched, BADLY regulated issue.

    It’s a huge, uncontrolled experiment.

    After 4 years of struggle on our DNR committee, the lawyers and lobbyists blocked adoption of any PCB Soil Criteria in Wisconsin, because we found that even a minimal health-based PCB limit would have outlawed most land-spreading (… even before adding any risks from the thousands of OTHER contaminants in these sludges.)

    Safe disposal was deemed “too expensive” and politically unacceptable. Instead, DNR was forced to do “risk management” (ie: mostly business-as-usual.)

    The few public interest reps on the committee (like me) were out-numbered, out-maneuvered, ridiculed, and isolated … achieving only improved sampling, better record-keeping of treated fields, and wider distribution (to dilute this deliberate soil pollution).

    It was an awful experience.

    Since then, the DNR has only limited the “loading” on each field, to keep each one from getting “too contaminated,” though the DNR’s own expert committee had already made it clear that even ONE sludge application could be unsafe.

    This is how health protection decisions are commonly made in Wisconsin (and elsewhere). It’s not reassuring.

  • Rebecca Katers

    Many disturbing political decisions were made during our committee’s deliberations (see below).

    One example: Mid-way through our committee process, the majority of political appointees on the committee decided (over my objections) to set a “PCB Soil Criteria” that would protect 95% of the human population exposed to PCBs due to land-spreading of PCB contaminated waste sludges ( — exposed directly and/or through consumption of crops, vegetables, meat, dairy and other foods produced on polluted land over 70 years.)

    In other words, the health of 5% of the exposed human population would NOT be protected — 1 person out of every 20 people. The lives and happiness of 286,300 residents of Wisconsin were considered expendable (— 5% of Wisconsin’s 5,726,000 people in 2012.)

    Yet, even after the committee decided to sacrifice 286,300 people in Wisconsin, the scientists’ assessed health risks due to PCB exposures were still so high that the final proposed “PCB Soil Criteria” would still have outlawed most land-spreading. (Even a heavily compromised PCB limit would have been in extremely low “parts per billion”(ppb), because PCBs are so pervasively toxic and accumulate so easily in our bodies.)

    So the sludge lobbyists blocked even the weakened criteria — and left ALL of us at higher risk.

    It’s vitally important to remember that PCBs are only ONE of the many toxic chemicals being land-spread with many waste sludges, so the lobbyists also blocked limits on the ADDED toxic risks of thousands of these OTHER chemicals, just by association.

    Anyone who trusts the government to protect them from serious health risks is dead wrong.