EPA Will Not Protect Public From Dioxins In Land-Applied Sewage Sludge

Dioxins Are Among Most Toxic Substances on Earth, Says NRDC

WASHINGTON (October 17, 2003) -- The Environmental Protection Agency today announced it will not regulate dioxins in land-applied sewage sludge, regardless of the fact that it is the largest source for dioxin exposure in the nation after backyard trash burning. Dioxins are among the most toxic substances on Earth, according to NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council), and today's decision violates the Clean Water Act, which requires the agency to limit toxic pollutants that harm human health or the environment.

"Dioxins cause cancer and diabetes, as well as nervous system and hormonal problems," said Nancy Stoner, director of NRDC's Clean Water Project. "And the EPA is required by law to protect the public from toxic pollutants like dioxins. This decision shows the agency under this administration has forgotten its mission."

EPA was required to announce this final regulation today as part of a settlement agreement with NRDC. The settlement is the final phase of lawsuits filed by NRDC and environmentalists in Oregon more than a decade ago to require EPA to limit toxic pollutants in sludge. Although amendments to the Clean Water Act in 1987 require EPA to set limits on toxic pollutants, the agency has not yet met that obligation for dioxin or any other organic toxic pollutant.

Actually a family of 219 toxic compounds, dioxins are known to cause cancer and diabetes, damage the skin and neurological and immune systems, and disrupt the endocrine system, according to a July 2003 report by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies of Science (see http://www.iom.edu/report.asp?id=13097). Developing fetuses and infants are particularly threatened by exposure to dioxins, which are found in soil, water and air. People are exposed to these contaminants primarily from the food supply, particularly from animal fat in meat, dairy products and fish.

Sewage sludge is the solid material generated when sewage is treated. Wastewater treatment moves pollutants from wastewater into the sludge, which then winds up containing most of the toxic pollutants. Sewer operators spread this toxic sludge on land, often as a fertilizer for growing crops and feed for grazing animals. Dioxins are of particular concern because they persist in the environment and accumulate in body fat. While the amount of dioxins in sewage sludge appears to have been decreasing over time, its presence in the food supply has been relatively constant because it has accumulated in the soil and animal fat.

"EPA traditionally limits public exposure to chemicals if they pose a cancer risk of one per 1 million Americans," Stoner explained. "But the risk is 1 in 10,000 from the dioxins we already have in our bodies. And cancer isn't the only problem. The EPA itself has said that the non-cancer risks of dioxins are so high that it can't even calculate a 'safe' or acceptable level of exposure. To us that says EPA should keep dioxins out of our food, and that means, among other things, regulating sewage sludge."

NRDC has recommended that EPA:

  • Prohibit sludge application on land used for pasture or growing forage food for livestock that will be consumed by humans;
  • Set a dioxins limit at 1 in one million cancer risk to protect public health;
  • Ban land application to sites where dioxin levels in the soil 1 parts per trillion (based on ecological risks that cannot be alleviated by management measures, such as banning application to pasture lands, which would reduce risks to human health); and
  • Require pollution prevention programs for sludges with detectible amounts of dioxins.

The Natural Resources Defense Council is a national, non-profit organization of scientists, lawyers and environmental specialists dedicated to protecting public health and the environment. Founded in 1970, NRDC has more than 550,000 members nationwide, served from offices in New York, Washington, Los Angeles and San Francisco.