When EPA agents with an agenda funds a sludge study, scientific researchers should beware! Julia
Gaskin of the University of Georgia is learning this lesson the hard way, in court charged with fabricating
data to cover up cattle deaths on a Georgia farm. "She also says that the paper was never intended to
study problems with biosolids on the dairy farms. “The purpose of this paper was not the focus that has
been alleged,” she says. “That was not part of this effort."
14 May 2008 | Nature | doi:10.1038/453262a
Raking through sludge exposes a stink Environmental Protection Agency scientists accused of fabricating data about
health effects of fertilizer.
Farmer Andy McElmurray won his court case against the US Department of Agriculture over land poisoned by sludge
A former US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) scientist is suing the agency's officials and researchers at the
University of Georgia in Athens, alleging that they manufactured and published false data to support the use
of potentially harmful sewage sludges as fertilizers. The sludges have been linked to health problems in humans and
cattle — and even deaths.
The False Claims Act lawsuit brought by microbiologist David Lewis, who says he was forced out of the agency,
alleges that EPA officials and University of Georgia researchers fraudulently orchestrated a grant and then fabricated
data to ensure that the EPA's 'biosolids' programme would come out smelling pretty. If the charges stick, the scientists
and EPA officials could be held personally liable and may be forced to pay back the original grant as well
as some US$4.6 million in subsequent grants, plus penalties.
“This is one of the few ways that you can hold people accountable for bad science and indeed for using false
information to create that science,” says attorney Ed Hallman of Decker, Hallman, Barber & Briggs in Atlanta, who
filed the lawsuit on behalf of Lewis and two Georgia dairy farmers.
At the heart of the case is a study by agricultural engineer Julia Gaskin of the University of Georgia and her
colleagues, which concluded that using sludge as a fertilizer “should not pose a risk to animal health”. It was
used in a 2002 report by the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS), which brushed aside allegations that livestock
had been killed by the toxic biosolids. The report states, with explicit reference to the Gaskin study, that the EPA had
investigated these cases and found “no substantiation” to the allegations. Gaskin and her colleagues published their
study a year later in the Journal of Environmental Quality1.
“Data on sewage sludge were unreliable, incomplete, and in some cases, fudged.” The lawsuit alleges that the
researchers concealed their own evidence that sewage sludge applications contaminated land and probably
contributed to cattle deaths on two dairy farms in Georgia, according to recently unsealed court documents. They
then conducted a new study on different land — using sewage-sludge data that were known to be “fudged”, in the
words of one federal judge — to show that the use of biosolids is safe, according to the lawsuit.
Gaskin would not talk about specifics but says she stands by her work. She also says that the paper was never
intended to study problems with biosolids on the dairy farms. “The purpose of this paper was not the
focus that has been alleged,” she says. “That was not part of this effort.” University officials and the EPA
declined to comment on the lawsuit or discuss the biosolids programme.
The US biosolids programme, which dates back to the 1970s, relies on residential and industrial wastes routed
through thousands of water-treatment plants. Some 60% of the residual sludges from the process — several million
dry tonnes annually — are now used as fertilizers rather than being buried or incinerated. But questions remain about
the sludges' impact on human and animal health — the programme has been the subject of multiple lawsuits for more
than a decade.
In February, a district court in Augusta, Georgia, ruled in favour of the McElmurray family, which had sued the
Department of Agriculture for farm subsidies on land they could not plant because of various contaminants from
sludge, including cadmium, molybdenum, arsenic and thallium. Judge Anthony Alaimo described a “broad consensus”
that data on the city of Augusta's sewage sludge toxicity and its application were “unreliable, incomplete, and
in some cases, fudged”.
These were the same records that were used in the Gaskin study to calculate application rates on the farms that they
analysed, and documents suggest that the researchers knew there were problems with the data. In one draft of
the study, University of Georgia soil scientist William Miller scrawled a note with a smiley face saying: “We should fess
up here that we don't know exact rates of application or specific characteristics of sludges applied.”
Miller did not respond to e-mails or phone calls from Nature. In a recent interview with Associated Press, however, he
acknowledged these doubts but maintained that the study “does not include fake data”.
“I'm at a total loss to look at anything in the Gaskin paper or its conclusions that are not based on fabricated data or
the concealment of their own data,” says Lewis, who claims he was forced out of the EPA in retaliation for his research
into the health impacts of sewage sludge.
In 2002, Lewis and his colleagues published a study in the journal BMC Public Health documenting reported health
problems among more than 48 people who lived near fields where 'Class B' sludges — the most common and least
sanitized — were applied2. Some 25% of those surveyed were infected by Staphylococcus aureus, which contributed
to two people's deaths. This research was cited in the 2002 NAS report as well, although the report stated that there
was no “documented scientific evidence” to substantiate reports of human illnesses or death. The academy said that it
was not charged with evaluating human health claims but went on to acknowledge a “persistent uncertainty” about
The NAS report recommended that the EPA conduct a new survey of chemicals and pathogens in sewage sludge,
begin systematically tracking health complaints, and conduct epidemiological studies to assess the impacts of
biosolids. The EPA has yet to implement these recommendations, although officals say a new survey of toxic
chemicals found in sludges is due out later this year.
Last year, a team led by epidemiologist Sadik Khuder of the University of Toledo in Ohio published similar findings to
those of Lewis's team. Their larger study found that the risk of various health problems correlated with
the proximity to farms where Class B sludges had been applied3.
“We have no idea what's going into the waste-stream,” says Murray McBride, director of Cornell Waste Management
Institute in Ithaca, New York. He says that there are unknown risks from cleaner 'Class A' sludges as well, because
the sterilization process doesn't kill all the pathogens and doesn't affect a host of other chemicals used in modern
industry. McBride says that the scientific community and regulatory agencies have been slow to address these
questions because of the huge economic and institutional investment in the biosolids programme. “There's a vested
interest now in keeping this land application going,” he says.
See Editorial, page 258 Below
Gaskin, J. W. , Brobst, R. B. , Miller, W. P. & Tollner, E. W. J. Environ.
Qual. 32, 146–152 (2003).
Lewis, D. L. , Gattie, D. K. , Novak, M. E. , Sanchez, S. & Pumphrey, C. BMC
Public Health 2, 11 (2002).
Khuder, S. et al . Arch. Environ. Occup. Health 62, 5–11 (2007).
Nature 453, 258
14 May 2008
Stuck in the mud
The Environmental Protection Agency must gather data on the toxicity of spreading sewage sludge.
Some 30 years ago, as the United States began to tighten its environmental regulations on residential and industrial
wastewater, operators of sewage-treatment plants embraced what seemed an eminently sensible idea.
They decided to take the rich organic sludge left over after clean water is extracted and sell it to farmers as fertilizer.
The practice proved popular, and has become increasingly common
internationally. Today, some 60% of sludges, innocuously dubbed 'biosolids' by the US Environmental Protection
Agency (EPA), are used as fertilizer in the United States. The programme might well be as sensible as it seems. It is
possible that the millions of tonnes of sludge being spread across the rural landscape contain
no significant levels of toxic chemicals, heavy metals or disease-causing organisms. It may all be perfectly benign. The
disturbing fact is that no one knows.
In what can only be called an institutional failure spanning more than three decades — and presidential
administrations of both parties — there has been no systematic monitoring programme to test what is in the sludge.
Nor has there been much analysis of the potential health effects among local residents — even though anecdotal
evidence suggests ample cause for concern. In fact, one of the studies used to refute potential dangers, published in
the Journal of Environmental Quality in 2003 by researchers at the University of Georgia in Athens, has been called
into question (see page 262).
Even the National Academy of Sciences seems to have been taken in. A 2002 report from the academy cited the then
unpublished Georgia work as evidence that the EPA had investigated and dismissed claims that sewage sludge had
killed cattle, but the study had not looked at the dairy farms in question. And although it may be technically true that
there was no documented evidence of sludge applications causing human illness or death, the academy
also cited work by an EPA whistleblower, David Lewis, suggesting at least an association between these factors. If
anything, recent research underscores those findings.
The Georgia citation notwithstanding, the academy did outline a sound plan for moving forward. It recommended
among other things that the EPA improve its risk-analysis techniques; survey the sludges for potential contaminants;
begin tracking health complaints; and conduct some epidemiological analyses to determine whether these reports
merit concern. The EPA has completed none of those tasks. Six years later, the agency is only now trying to finish its
evaluation of potential contaminants and has yet to establish a system for monitoring reports of health problems.
Agency officials say that they are working on risk-analysis tools, but have yet to undertake any kind of epidemiological
The EPA certainly has other competing priorities, and the fault here does not lie only with the current administration or
any single researcher. Regardless, these safety questions deserve answers, and the EPA should be able to deliver
them. It is time to get the data.
Date: Thu, 15 May 2008 09:33:42 -0400
From: "Maureen Reilly" <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: Sludge Watch ==> Pennsylvania - Sludge Doesn't Pass the Sniff
Content-Type: text/plain; format=flowed
The USDA didn't have money to compensate Georgia farmers whose land was
contaminated with toxic metals from sewage sludge, but they have hundreds of
thousands of dollars to pay for some folks to sniff sludge in a laboratory.
You have to wonder if this 'sniffer guy' is going to suffer health
Rural residents know the smell of sludge. It isn't the odor of sludge that
is at the heart of the issue.
The smell of sludge is a daily reminder to sludged communities that their
drinking water, food, health, and local ecology have been put at risk by the
spreading of concentrated urban sewer wastes. Indeed, anything as toxic as
sewage sludge should smell bad. Stuff that smells bad is nature's way of
warning us to stay away.
(Note: Ed Hallman, Georgia lawyer, successfully sued the USDA for
compensation for Georgia dairy farmers McElmurray & Sons, Inc. and Boyceland
Dairy farms. The time for all appeals has passed, so the farmers have been
successful in their suit against the USDA)