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Home > Archives > 2nd Quarter 1995 > Secret Ingredients
PR Watch Archives

Volume 2, No. 3

Flack Attack

Let Them Eat Sludge

A Brief History of Slime

Secret Ingredients

A R.O.S.E. By Any Other Name

Bypassing Barriers with "Active" and "Passive" Public Relations

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Secret Ingredients

by John C. Stauber and Sheldon Rampton

The HarperCollins Dictionary of Environmental Science defines sludge as a "viscous, semisolid mixture of bacteria- and virus-laden organic matter, toxic metals, synthetic organic chemicals, and settled solids removed from domestic and industrial waste water at a sewage treatment plant."

Over 60,000 toxic substances and chemical compounds can be found in sewage sludge, and scientists are developing 700 to 1,000 new chemicals per year. Stephen Lester of the Citizens Clearinghouse for Hazardous Wastes has compiled information from researchers at Cornell University and the American Society of Civil Engineers showing that sludge typically contains the following toxins:

  • Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs);
  • Chlorinated pesticides--DDT, dieldrin, aldrin, endrin, chlordane, heptachlor, lindane, mirex, kepone, 2,4,5-T, 2,4-D;
  • Chlorinated compounds such as dioxins;
  • Polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons;
  • Heavy metals--arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead, mercury;
  • Bacteria, viruses, protozoa, parasitic worms, fungi;
  • Miscellaneous--asbestos, petroleum products, industrial solvents.

In addition, a 1994 investigation by by the US General Accounting Office found that "the full extent of the radioactive contamination of sewage sludge, ash and related by-products nationwide is unknown." Most of the radioactive material is flushed down the drain by hospitals, businesses and decontamination laundries, a practice which has contaminated at least nine sewage treatment plants in the past decade.

In 1977, EPA Administrator Douglas Costle estimated that by 1990 treatment plants would be generating 10 million tons of sludge per year, a thought that "gives us all a massive environmental headache." Today there are about 15,000 publicly-owned wastewater treatment works in the United States, discharging approximately 26 billion gallons per day of treated wastewater into lakes, streams and waterways. Before treatment, this wastewater contains over a million pounds of hazardous components. Sewage plants use heat, chemicals and bacterial treatments to detoxify 42 percent of these components through biodegradation. Another 25 percent escapes into the atmosphere, and 19 percent is discharged into lakes and streams. The remaining 14 percent--approximately 28 million pounds per year--winds up in sewage sludge.

Once created, this sludge must be disposed of somehow. Available methods include: incineration (which pollutes the air), dumping into landfills (which is expensive, and often leaches contaminants into groundwater), and ocean dumping (where it has created vast underwater dead seas). A fourth method --gasification, using sludge to generate methanol or energy--is favored by EPA's Hugh Kaufman as the "most environmentally sound approach, but also the most expensive." A fifth approach --using sludge as plant fertilizer--was considered hazardous to health and the environment until the 1970s, but it has the advantage of being inexpensive. As budget concerns mounted in the late 1970s, the EPA began to pressure sewage plants to adopt the cheapest method available--spreading sludge on farm fields.

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