A Death in the Night

Published June 1, 1999

“The evening of Thanksgiving, I kissed my son of 26 years, Shayne, goodnight for the last time,” Joanne Marshall recently told a roomful of reporters at a conference of Environmental Protection Agency whistleblowers. “Around 4:00 that morning, I was awakened to a frightful scream from my other son, who was home from college during the holiday.

“When I ran to the room, Shayne appeared unconscious, yet he seemed to be gasping. 911 was called and all I could do was hug him and wait for the paramedics. We spent what seemed like an eternity in the hospital waiting room, only to be told my son was dead.”

While Shayne is the only one to have died, others in his family and many of their neighbors also have contracted a series of difficult-to-treat and unexplained diseases. Common symptoms have included nausea and vomiting, followed by stomach cramps and migraine headaches, then respiratory flu-like symptoms including a heavy mucous that makes breathing and swallowing difficult.

Doctors do not have a name for the stubborn disease, which is generally treated by a series of antibiotics. However, a representative of New Hampshire’s Health and Human Services Office of Risk Assessment did offer Marshall a name for the symptoms: sludge syndrome.

The neighborhood’s health problems surfaced around Halloween last year, when a contractor began dumping sludge from municipal waste treatment plants on a nearby field. The sludge included human feces, hospital waste, a variety of trace chemicals, and everything else that is dumped down a city’s sewers.

Many scientists are convinced that sludge is rife with potentially lethal or debilitating viruses, bacteria, and chemicals. Yet it is routinely spread on fields where food crops are grown, where its dust might be blown into homes, and where its contents might easily leach into groundwater, rivers, and streams. It is a common ingredient in potting soil sold for home use.

These practices are not only legal, but in fact have been mandated by EPA since 1993, when ocean-dumping of municipal sludge was outlawed.

Cause of Death: Unknown

“No one knows why Shayne died,” EPA microbiologist, David Lewis PhD, speaking for himself, not EPA, told the press. To date, no one has conducted a thorough scientific investigation into his death, though Marshall has appealed to a variety of government agencies.

“What surprised and frustrated his mother,” Lewis continued, “is that no one really wanted to know. Her efforts to have EPA and state officials investigate whether her son’s death was related to his exposure to sludge met with resistance and resentment.

“As important as it is to know why Shayne died, it’s even more important to understand why government officials didn’t want to find out. ‘There are no documented cases of anyone ever being harmed by sludge.’ That’s EPA’s mantra. It’s what agency officials feel is their strongest argument supporting the safety of the 503 sludge rule.” EPA further argues, said Lewis, that people come into contact with large quantities of pathogens every day; since sludge contains only minute quantities of pathogens, it poses no health risk.

Why Sludge Is Suspect

In the scientific community, Lewis is considered an expert on the survival of viral, bacterial, and fungal pathogens in the environment, and often testifies on this topic before congressional committees. He is involved in a series of legal actions against EPA, charging that the agency has harassed him and smeared his reputation following his criticism that it disregards science when making regulations.

In sworn testimony before the Merrimack County, New Hampshire, Superior Court, Lewis debunked EPA claims of safe sludge:

“The problem with this argument [exposure to minute quantities of pathogens is safe] is that all microorganisms are not created equal. For most individuals, death or illness arising from invasion by pathogenic microorganisms does not originate with the huge numbers of viruses, bacteria, and fungi we normally encounter every day. Instead, it develops from rare encounters with strains of microorganisms carrying certain special traits that allow them to overcome our defenses.”

Lewis pointed out that numerous strains of everyday streptococcus are on everyone’s skin and, typically, pose no health risk. Yet a strain of streptococcus resistant to many antibiotics is a likely killer. It is thus not particularly relevant that the numbers of microbes in processed sludge is low. Of greater concern is whether that sludge contains microbes capable of overcoming modern antibiotics, so-called “superbugs.”

The fact that municipal plants treat hospital as well as residential waste raises the possibility of such “superbugs” in municipal sludge. Further complicating the sludge problem, according to Lewis, is the fact that microbes in sludge are likely to multiply, rather than decrease, over time, because they can feed on the high levels of organic and inorganic materials present in sludge. In addition, even if pathenogenic microbes die quickly, their antibiotic-resistant qualities can transfer readily to other relatively benign microbes.

Scientists largely agree that no completely safe mechanism exists for disposing of sludge. Many, however, say that land application of sludge should not have become federal policy without a basis in peer-reviewed scientific studies. No such studies have been conducted, and the land application policy does not have the support of a consensus of scientists and engineers.

So why did EPA replace ocean-dumping of sludge with the unstudied practice of land application? Dr. Alan Rubin, who wrote EPA’s sludge regulation, testified before the New Hampshire state legislature last November, “[sludge] wasn’t too toxic for the ocean. The reason we got it out of the ocean was basically an image-political type deal.”

In Joanne Marshall’s closing remarks about her son’s death, she said, “Our first lady wrote a book called It Takes a Village to raise a child. However, it took a huge conglomerate, greed, and indifference to destroy him.”