We completed 26 interviews with 34 individuals 35–83 years of age living in rural and semirural areas within approximately 1 mile of sewage sludge land application sites in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia. Twenty participants were from North Carolina, 6 from South Carolina, and 8 from Virginia. Nineteen interviews were with individuals, 5 with married couples, 1 with a brother and sister, and 1 with a married couple and a relative. Of the respondents, 17 were male, 17 female, 21 white, 12 African American, and 1 Hispanic. Interviewers observed that most participants lived in modest homes and neighborhoods that could be described as working or middle class, although a few lived in larger, newer homes that could be described as upper-middle class.
At the time of the interviews, all but 5 respondents had lived in their homes for 5 years or more. Almost half (16/34) of the respondents had lived in their homes or neighborhoods most of their lives, and 11 lived on property or in neighborhoods where their families had lived for more than a generation. Eleven reported having a background in farming. About half maintained gardens on their property, and many tended outdoor animals, including horses, goats, fowl, and dogs.
The study results are categorized according to key themes identified in the interviews about the experience of living near land-applied sewage sludge fields: health impacts, environmental impacts, and environmental justice.
Most respondents felt that sludge applications had a negative impact on some aspect of their health. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines health as a state of well-being, and not just the absence of disease (WHO 1948
). We drew on this definition to categorize respondents’ remarks on health impacts into the following subthemes: physical well-being, mental well-being, and social well-being.
Physical well-being. Nearly all respondents (30/34) described offensive odors associated with sludge. The extent to which the odor affected the respondents varied. Some described it as “unbearable,” others as an odor they “got used to,” and one respondent said, “it don’t bother me.” Respondents reported they notice sludge odor for periods lasting from 2 days to 6 months after application.
Over half (18/34) of the interview respondents associated acute physical symptoms that lasted a short period of time with sludge application events near their home (). The most commonly reported symptoms were eye, nose, and throat irritations and gastrointestinal symptoms (nausea, vomiting, diarrhea). Other symptoms reported by more than one respondent include cough, difficulty breathing, sinus congestion or drainage, and skin infections or sores.
Acute (short duration) physical symptoms respondents attributed to sludge exposure (n = 18/34 respondents).
One respondent described recurring physical reactions coincident with sludge applications near her home:
All I know is [the sludge] will make your eyes burn. It will make your throat burn. And then you’ll start coughing, and after that, you can’t breathe. And that’s when I go to the doctors.
A farmer and long-time resident described the nauseating effects of sludge odor:
The stench—it would actually make you sick. It takes a lot to bother me, but it certainly got to me. I’d get nauseated after being out for about an hour in the morning.
Other physical symptoms or conditions that were mentioned by no more than one respondent include pneumonia, swelling of brain arteries, increased seizures, temporary blindness, swollen tongue, closed throat, lung infection, and migraine.
A few respondents expressed concern that they or their family members have chronic health problems, such as asthma or cancer, that make them more sensitive to harmful constituents in sludge. The parents of a child with chronic respiratory problems said they keep him indoors as long as sludge odors from a neighboring field are present—up to 2 or 3 months—to protect him from possible airborne pollutants.
Mental well-being. Over half of the respondents (18/34) said sludge application in their neighborhoods stirred unsettling emotions, including anger, frustration, misery, fear, worry, anxiety, insecurity, and helplessness. Respondents most commonly expressed anger related to not being informed about sludge application in their neighborhood, reckless sludge truck drivers, regulators who seem unconcerned with violations of land application rules, public officials who do not respond to reported concerns, and health impacts.
A woman who reported that she and other family members get sick after nearby sludge applications described the emotional impact of sludge this way:
I’m bitter and frustrated and angry because [sludge] is affecting my family …. And it’s going to alter the rest of their lives because of something that’s been laid down next to them that we knew nothing about, and had no control over.
Malodor from sludge seemed to affect some respondents’ mental states. As one interviewee said,
I’m outside cutting grass or working in the garden and constantly smelling that [sludge] …. Your attitude changes by disturbances in your environment.
A war veteran with posttraumatic stress disorder reported experiencing flashbacks from sludge odor reminiscent of the smell of burning waste in a warzone:
[Sludge] is not just a nuisance; it’s a medical problem for me …. I am not able to get myself to a place where I can begin to heal if they’re constantly driving me backwards … every time I’ve got to walk out of my house and smell the freaking warzone.
Most respondents (26/34) shared ways that sludge odor and other related nuisances interfere with their enjoyment of home, property, and the outdoors. One long-time rural resident who joined her husband in the country after they married volunteered this common sentiment about the impact of sludge odor on her home life:
I don’t want to come home because when we come home, we’re locked in the house. My husband says, “This is not the same. It’s just not the same. We can’t really enjoy where we live.”
Social well-being. Some respondents (8/34) said sludge odors disrupt their opportunities to socialize with family and friends. Several lamented they are unable to spend time walking, playing, eating, or sitting outside as a family when sludge odor is present. One father said,
We have a gazebo outside. We sit outside. At least, that was our conversation in planning it. Family-ness. And [sludge] took that away.
A few respondents said they refuse visits from extended family members because of the intensity of the sludge odor and concerns about its health impacts. A mother and grandmother said,
My daughter wants to come up with the grandkids, with the family—I won’t let her come when they’re sludging. She got so hurt one year. “Mommy, we’re coming for a week.” I said, “No, you can’t.”
Others said sludge odors interfere with social gatherings. One respondent whose family has lived in his neighborhood for generations recalled,
They first put [sludge] out right before the Fourth of July …. We had to put our plans to the side on doing something on the outside. We usually have cookouts, but you can’t cook out in nothing like that.
A total of 22 respondents named specific activities they are unable to do because of malodor from sludge during and for up to several months after a sludge application event (). The most frequently mentioned activity limitations were letting children play outdoors, opening house and car windows, and hosting relatives or outdoor social gatherings. Others include line-drying laundry, walking freely around the neighborhood, gardening or working outside, sitting outside as a family, and staying home. A few respondents described ways of coping with the odor so they could continue their usual activities. One woman said she wears a mask to do barn chores when sludge odor is strong. Another said she wears a mask to leave the house when the odor is present.
Activities respondents said they are unable to do because of malodor from sludge during and for up to several months after a sludge application event (n = 22/34 respondents).
Environmental impacts. Over half of the interview respondents (18/34) reported observing land application activities of environmental concern to them. The most commonly reported concerns include sludge spillage on public roadways and private property, grazing cattle on land-applied pasture soon after application, the absence of signage at land application sites, and sludge runoff into surface waters. lists these and other observations of concern to respondents, as well as the number of respondents who reported them. In some cases, self-informed respondents said that the land application activities they observed were violations of state standards and that they attempted to report them to officials. In other cases, respondents had no knowledge of their state’s land application standards.
Number of respondents reporting observations of environmental concern (n = 18/34 respondents) regarding land application operations
About one-third of the respondents (12/34) said they noticed changes in the natural environment since sludge application began in their neighborhood. For example, seven respondents said they noticed more deaths and illness among livestock and water life:
I look at the sludge on this slope—when they put it out, if it rains, this water flows down in this branch …. Now there is no fish or anything that lives in these little branches. No crawdads, anything …. When I was growing up, we’d go there and I would fish for them and so forth. But all this is gone …. So that is saying something has killed all this stuff.
Five respondents reported a change in private well water since applications began near their homes, such as the presence of chemicals, “green slime,” bacteria, or odor. One report came from a man whose property is adjacent to a land application site:
My well … water had an awful smell to it, and a green slime … like three months [after sludge application] …. Before they [applied sludge], I had lived here … two and a half years. Without a problem.
The U.S. EPA (2012)
defines environmental justice as the “fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people … with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.” Seventeen of 34 respondents indicated they live near sludge application fields that are owned by individuals or entities, including municipalities, who do not live in the community. In light of this, some said their rural or semirural community was being used unfairly as a “dumping ground” for city waste and that they were left to deal with the odor, health problems, and other nuisances that come with it. Four respondents suggested they may be treated inequitably when sites are selected for land application because of their rural and lower income status:
They’ve just got to have somewhere to dump the stuff, and the rural communities, where you’ve got low income people who aren’t able to fight for themselves and stuff like that. That could be some of it.
Related to the “meaningful involvement” component of environmental justice, most respondents described barriers to obtaining information about sludge application in their neighborhood, reporting concerns and problems to public officials, and influencing decisions about the use of sludge where they live. We used these three aspects of “meaningful involvement” to categorize what respondents said on the topic into three subthemes: public notification, reporting concerns, and influencing decisions.
Public notification. All respondents told us that neither public officials nor land appliers directly informed them that sewage sludge from wastewater treatment plants would be applied near their homes. Nearly all expressed disappointment about this. One respondent who reported sludge odors that smelled like “death” and blamed sludge for contaminating his well water described resentment that nobody informed him that a neighboring city would apply sewage sludge a few hundred feet from his home:
We have no knowledge about this, so therefore we’re not prepared for the surprises that may come …. If somebody wants to come out here and explain something to us and it sounds common sense and legit, we’ll listen. Don’t do us like you’re doing us now.
A few respondents mentioned that some municipalities or land appliers post signs to inform the public that land application is occurring but that it is not an effective form of notification because the signs are often difficult to see and interpret. One respondent described a “crumpled up and rusty sign down on the ground.” He said new signs have since been posted but they are not posted at every “sludge field.” Another respondent said she saw a sign by a field in the early days of land application near her home, but at the time she did not understand the terms on the sign, such as “biosolids,” “residuals,” and “Nutriblend,” which she interpreted to mean they were “applying vitamins.” Others noted that signs were too small or in obscure places, listed incorrect or no contact information, were not posted far enough in advance of application for residents to be prepared, or were present for only a few days rather than the entire application period, which made them easy to miss. Six respondents volunteered that they had not seen signs marking fields where land application was occurring.
Lacking information about land application of sewage sludge, interviewees spoke about their efforts to find out about it. Some said they discussed it with neighbors. At least seven made calls to public officials. Three of the seven said they received straightforward answers about land application of sewage sludge from public officials. Four described difficulty reaching officials and receiving satisfactory answers. For example, they described being transferred on the telephone multiple times and never reaching anyone who would give them straight answers. They said officials responded to their inquiries about sludge with ambiguous statements, such as “it’s safe,” “it’s a farming experiment,” “it’s a special fertilizer,” or “it’s approved.” One woman said that she and her neighbors did not learn the truth about what was being applied in their neighborhood for several years after she first asked a local wastewater treatment official about it. Residents of a different neighborhood reported that when public officials evaded their questions about sludge, they resorted to following sludge trucks to find out what they were hauling.
Reporting concerns. Fourteen respondents said they reported specific sludge-related concerns to officials, including offensive odors, land application in the rain, sludge run-off into drinking water sources, land application in critical watersheds, sludge that fails to assimilate in the soil, suspected well water contamination, reckless sludge trucks, health problems concurrent with sludge application, sensitivity of children and elderly to sludge due to respiratory infections and an immunocompromised condition, inaccuracies in state land application records, and questions about the heavy metals content or general safety of the sludge. A few respondents reported improvements in the land application practice over time and said officials and operators had responded to their concerns by respecting set-back distances, using alternate driving routes, slowing down trucks hauling sludge, posting correct contact information on land application signs, and returning their phone calls requesting information.
Nearly all (13/14) respondents who reported concerns registered dissatisfaction overall with the response from officials, saying they “do nothing,” “don’t listen to the people,” answer to the industry rather than the people, “beat around the bush,” “sidestep stuff,” “deny there’s a problem,” “don’t investigate concerns,” “don’t keep their word,” don’t answer their phones, try to cover things up, say contradictory things about the constituents of sludge, act “like they don’t care,” and have no interest in doctors’ letters stating it is unsafe for their patient to be exposed to sludge.
Influencing decisions. One respondent described feeling “powerless” to influence land application in his community because all the power and control are with the sludge industry, and local leadership will not or cannot do anything to change the practice. Similar frustration was expressed in other interviews. For example, a respondent from Virginia said the Dillon Rule, a judicial doctrine that limits local government authority in Virginia, North Carolina, and other states (Clay 1989
), prevents her local government from establishing rules and regulations governing land application where she lives. She felt that it was unfair to favor one land owner who wants to use sludge when the majority of the community is opposed to it. She added,
The industry has all the control. Because they can pull up application, or they can lay it down. And they don’t care. As long as they’ve got permission to do it, they’re going to do it.
In spite of perceived barriers to influencing land application decisions, over half of the interviewees (19/34) described changes they would like the industry to make to improve public notification and enhance public and environmental protections. First, several respondents suggested public officials should directly notify residents within 1 mile of sludge fields before the first and subsequent land application events. A few said residents should be given the opportunity before land application events to inform public officials of household members with health conditions, such as a respiratory illness or weakened immune system, so that an injection method of land application can be used to better safeguard their health, or so application at the site can be suspended.
Some respondents who reported poorly visible signs near sludge fields or who reported seeing no signs at all suggested that land appliers post large visible signs 2 weeks before application and for the duration of the event. Respondents said this would allow them to prepare for the event and take necessary safety precautions for their family and animals. Also related to public notifications, some respondents said they would like to receive the results of sludge testing from the wastewater treatment plants that apply waste near their homes in order to monitor concentrations of harmful constituents and possible concerns.
Respondents concerned about well water contamination said the city should provide water to residents in land application areas or offer free periodic testing of their private well water to evaluate its safety. A few respondents said application in a critical watershed and land application before forecasted rain events should be prohibited. If the latter should occur, respondents said the sludge should be tilled under immediately following application to prevent runoff. Some respondents also felt that land application should not occur under windy conditions because of the increased likelihood of exposing neighbors to migrating pollutants. Generally speaking, respondents who were aware of land application rules and who reported violations said that better enforcement of existing rules is needed to protect human and environmental health.
Respondents who felt there were conflicts of interest in land application governance and practice that undermine human health and the environment said these should be minimized by contracting with independent scientists to perform and report soil and sludge batch testing; funding independent, formal research about health and environmental impacts of sludge application; prohibiting state and local health departments and the U.S. EPA from promoting land application; and making government employees responsible for telling residents the truth about land application.
Finally, a few respondents said they would like the land application industry to improve and maintain roads damaged by the frequent travel of heavy sludge trucks.
Overall, eight respondents said they would like land application to stop, either indefinitely or until independent research can “prove it’s safe” for human health and the environment.