, Volume 9, Issue 3, pp 246-260
Date: 20 Mar 2009

The use of sewage sludge as soil amendment. The need for an ecotoxicological evaluation

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Background, aim, and scope

Sewage sludge use in agriculture should be limited by the presence of metals and other persistent environmental pollutants. The present study aims to contribute for the definition of a test battery of ecotoxicological assays that allows a proper ecotoxicological characterization of sludges, providing information on their potential hazard and identified “safe” application levels.

Materials and methods

Three sludges from distinct sources (urban, olive-processing, and electroplating industries) were tested using avoidance and reproduction tests with earthworms (Eisenia andrei) and springtails (Folsomia candida) and plant growth tests with turnips (Brassica rapa) and oats (Avena sativa). Different soil–sludge mixture concentrations mimicking recommended/realistic field dosages were tested.


Only the sludge from the electroplating industry induced an avoidance response from the earthworms (EC50 = 0.4 t/ha) and collembolans (no observed effect concentration (NOEC) = 15 t/ha). This sludge was the only sludge responsible for any effect on the reproductive output of the earthworms (EC50 = 7.74 t/ha). Regarding collembolans, none of the sludges tested caused any significant decrease in reproduction. In higher plant tests, the two industrial sludges were toxic, causing a decrease growth in both species. The EC20 values determined for B. rapa were 20.3 and 24.2 t/ha and for A. sativa 14.7 and 16.2 t/ha for sludges from olive-processing and electroplating industries, respectively.


The metal loadings of the different test sludges could partially explain the results obtained. The toxicity of the test sludge from electroplating industry observed on the tested invertebrates and plants could be explained by the high amount of total chromium from which 22.3% was in the most toxic oxidation state—Cr(VI). However, the toxicity caused by the sludge from the olive-processing industry in the test plants could be attributed to the presence of other compounds (not measured in this study) since the metal content was not high enough to induce such an effect. The absence of toxicity showed by the urban test sludge was in agreement with its low levels of metals.


The response of the different test organisms and end points varied according to the sludge type. The urban sludge was non-toxic whereas the sludge from the electroplating industry caused a toxic effect on almost all parameters measured (avoidance behavior of both test organisms, reproduction of earthworms, and growth of both plant species). Sludge from the olive-processing industry only caused a toxic effect on growth of both plant species. By analyzing the sensitivity of the different parameters for the most toxic sludge, it was found that avoidance and reproduction were more sensitive than plant growth, whereas plant seed germination was not sensitive at all.

Recommendations and perspectives

The ecotoxicological evaluation of wastes can be used as an environmental safety control of sludge use in agriculture. A tiered approach could be adopted for this purpose, incorporating avoidance tests in the first tier (screening level) and reproduction and plant growth tests in a second tier. But more evidence aiming to define the most suitable ecotoxicological test battery for specific sludges with a different contamination profile is still needed.