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Farm Sewage Sludge a Health Threat

Nearby residents face rash of illnesses if biosolids are applied

SUNDAY, Aug. 4(HealthDayNews) -- You may be anything but flush with health if you live near farm fields fertilized with sewage sludge.

Burning and irritated eyes and lungs, skin rashes and other illnesses are among the problems experienced by residents of homes close to land where Class B biosolids -- a byproduct of the human waste treatment process -- are applied, says a recently published University of Georgia study.

The study included 54 people living near 10 biosolid application sites in Alabama, California, Florida, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Texas and the province of Ontario in Canada.

Many of the residents had Staphylococcus aureus infections on the skin and in their respiratory tracts. About 25 percent of the people in the study were infected, and two died as the result of septicemia and pneumonia. S. aureus is commonly found in the lower human colon.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency doesn't consider S. aureus to be a significant public health risk, even though it's the leading cause of hospital-acquired infections and is commonly found in sewage, says study co-author David Lewis, a research microbiologist at the university.

Lewis says that chemicals are added when the sludge is being processed. These chemicals can irritate the skin and respiratory tract and make people more susceptible to infection, he said.

In a recent report about biosolids, the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences concluded the use of processed sewage sludge as a commercial fertilizer may be a public health risk.

Along with pathogens, sewage sludge can contain household chemicals, heavy metals, pesticides, and synthetic hormones from birth control pills and dioxins.

More information

The Environmental Protection Agency has more information on biosolids.

SOURCE: University of Georgia, news release, July 2002
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