Date: 05 Dec 2006

Organic Contaminants from Sewage Sludge Applied to Agricultural Soils. False Alarm Regarding Possible Problems for Food Safety? (8 pp)

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Abstract

Goal, Scope and Background

Sewage sludge produced in wastewater treatment contains large amounts of organic matter and nutrients and could, therefore, be suitable as fertiliser. However, with the sludge, besides heavy metals and pathogenic bacteria, a variety of organic contaminants can be added to agricultural fields. Whether the organic contaminants from the sludge can have adverse effects on human health and wildlife if these compounds enter the food chain or groundwater still remains a point of controversial discussion.

Main Features

This paper presents an overview on the present situation in Europe and a summary of some recent results on the possible uptake of organic contaminants by crops after addition to agricultural fields by sewage sludge.

Results

Greenhouse experiments and field trials were performed to study the degradation and uptake of organic micro-contaminants in sludge-amended agricultural soil in crops, such as barley and carrots grown in agricultural soil amended with anaerobically-treated sewage sludge from a wastewater treatment plant, but studies hitherto have revealed no immediate risks. Common sludge contaminants such as linear alkylbenzene sulphonates (LAS), nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPE), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), bis(diethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP), showed neither accumulation in soil nor uptake in plants.

Discussion

It is assumed that the annual amount of sewage sludge produced in Europe will increase in the future, mainly due to larger amounts of high quality drinking water needed by an increasing population and due to increasing demands for cleaner sewage water. Application of sewage sludge to agricultural soils is sustainable and economical due to nutrient cycling and disposal of sewage sludge. However, this solution also involves risks with respect to the occurrence of organic contaminants and other potentially harmful contents such as pathogens and heavy metals present in the sludge. There have been concerns that organic contaminants may accumulate in the soil, be taken up by plants and thereby transferred to humans via the food chain. Results obtained so far revealed, however, no immediate risk of accumulation of common organic sludge contaminants in soil or uptake in plants when applying sewage sludge to agricultural soil. With very high dosages of sewage sludge, there may be a risk for accumulation of very apolar contaminants, such as DEHP, to the soil.

Conclusions

Any conclusions on the safe use of sewage sludge in agriculture have to be drawn carefully, as the studies performed until now have been limited. Further studies are required, and before final statements can be drawn, it is imminent to study a larger variety of common crops and the effect sewage sludge application may have on a possible accumulation of organic contaminants in the crops. Furthermore, a larger variety of organic contaminants need to be studied and special focus should be given to contaminants newly introduced into the environment. Besides investigating possible plant uptake of organic contaminants, the fate of these compounds in soil after sludge application need to be monitored too. Here, special attention has to be given to studies on degradation and the formation of degradation products, to weathering and to leaching effects on groundwater, to the application of different crops on the same field (crop rotation), to the use of full-width tillage and strip tillage, and to long term application of sewage sludge on the soil.

Recommendations and Perspective

. There are environmental, political as well as economical incentives to increase the agricultural application of sludge. However, such usage should be performed with care as there are also ways in which sludge fertilisation could harm the environment and human health. Recently, a new European COST Action (859) has been established covering the field of food safety and improved food quality. Part of the Action is dealing with the application of sewage sludge in agriculture. Before any political and economical measures can be taken, the pros and cons have to be sufficiently investigated on a scientific level first.