'Humanure' dumping sickens homeowner.
Kinburn resident Brenda Grey stands on her property overlooking the field that was covered in biosolids in 2008. After suffering through health issues that she believes were caused by the biosolids, Grey received a letter stating that another land application will be spread on the field within weeks.
A Kinburn woman says a farmer’s field near her house where the city dumped treated human waste has made her and her animals sick.
Brenda Grey has collected a petition with 70 signatures asking the City of Ottawa to stop dumping “humanure” on the field.
Also known as sewer sludge, biosolids are treated human wastewater used as fertilizer to add nutrients to the soil. It’s like manure, only using human waste instead.
The City of Ottawa and the province of Ontario state that land application of biosolids is safe and completely legal when applied according to regulations put in place by the province.
The last time the city dumped biosolids on the field, Grey said she ended up with a gastrointestinal virus and several of her animals contracted illnesses.
A test of her well water by the Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care showed unsafe levels of E. coli and coliform in her well water, a result of sewage contamination.
Last summer, Grey received a notice from the city, informing her that it would dump another load of treated human waste on agricultural land located at the northeast corner of Mohr’s Road and Hunt Line Road in Kinburn this year.
“I thought, ‘They can’t do this,’” said Grey. “I will die if they contaminate that field. I still haven’t recovered from the last time.”
In 2008, Grey received a letter in the mailbox from the City of Ottawa telling her that biosolids would be spread on the field next to her house.
Grey didn’t know what to expect, but there was one side effect of the dumping that she noticed right away.
“The smell,” she said. “The smell was so outrageous that we didn’t even leave the house. People would come by and say, ‘Brenda, that smells like human waste, what is that?’ It smelled like that for two weeks.”
Although the stench caused Grey and her husband Robert to cancel many of their social plans, the real problems came later.
When they moved to their new home in 2004, a test showed the well’s water was safe to drink.
During the winter of 2008-09, after the city dumped treated human waste on a nearby farmer’s field, Grey contracted a gastrointestinal bacterial infection and was forced to take the antibiotic Flagyl for three months before recovering.
The infection carried on into the spring and early summer, leaving Grey feeling nauseous and weak and she made multiple trips to the hospital emergency room.
Grey’s dog also contracted a bacterial infection, and was also put on Flagyl.
One of Grey’s horses, which was boarded next to another field that had been covered with treated waste, suffered from severe diarrhea and had to be treated intravenously by a veterinarian, who suspected the problem could be C. difficile, a type of bacteria that can be transmitted through feces.
Another of Grey’s horses died that winter of heaves, the equine version of asthma.
Grey also developed a respiratory problem resulting in a chronic cough.
“Prior to this, I hadn’t been sick for 15 years,” she said. “Not a cold, not a virus, nothing.”
Grey said the three months she spent taking Flagyl was dangerous to her health because she suffered from a blood disease as a result of a tainted blood transfusion.
“I said to my husband, ‘We have to check the water,’” Grey said.
After testing the well in July of 2009, the Ministry of Health and Long Term Care sent a report saying their water was unsafe to drink as a result of sewage contamination.
The total coliform level was 80 per 100 millilitres, and the E. coli level was at four per 100 millilitres.
Health Canada states that the safe level of coliform and E. coli in drinking water is zero. Coliform can be categorized as either total or fecal coliform – the former being acceptable in water up until 10 per 100 millilitres, but the latter being related to E. coli and not suitable for drinking.
The Grey’s have a fairly new septic tank which has been recently cleaned, so she said she is confident it wasn’t the result of a faulty tank.
Other causes of contamination could have been manure getting into the well, which is what she was told when she contacted a staff member with the city’s biosolids program.
Grey paid for a purification system to be installed with a filter that restored the water from her 110-metre-deep well back to safety.
She started a campaign against the spreading of biosolids, calling every government ministry she could think of, but was unable to find anyone who could help or compensate her.
Last July, Grey received another letter from the City of Ottawa informing her that there would be another application of municipal biosolids on agricultural land located on a field near her home.
Grey began a petition, collecting 70 signatures from neighbours and clients of her psychotherapy practice she runs out of her home.
Grey isn’t the only one who has gone public with her protests against biosolids.
Lisa Jones, who owns Rideau Bus Lines with her husband Stuart Simpson in North Gower, experienced negative health effects from biosolids deposited next to their home in 2001.
Jones said she first became aware of the biosolids because of the smell.
“We thought the dog had brought in a dead groundhog,” she said.
This was before legislation was put in place requiring biosolids to be mixed in with the soil, so they were piled on top of the field, right up against the fence surrounding Jones’ and Simpson’s property.
Within hours, Jones and her family had headaches, itchy throats, sore eyes, nausea and diarrhea.
Operating Rideau Bus Lines from their home prevented Jones and Simpson from leaving, and they found it impossible to keep the smell out of their home.
“It filters right into the house,” she said. “Every time you open the door, the smell comes in.”
The nausea and diarrhea were so persistent that Jones and Simpson contacted Glenn Brooks, their city councillor at the time. He came to their house and Jones said he was repulsed by the smell, but didn’t do anything to help them.
Next, Jones approached Robert Cushman, then Ottawa’s medical officer of health.
Jones said she discovered that the City of Ottawa had not notified nearby residents that they would be dumping biosolids as required under provincial law. Because of this slipup and Jones’ activism, a six-month moratorium was put in place forbidding any further biosolid deposits in the area.
The six months were also used to update the city’s biosolid procedures, and it was then that regulations were put in place requiring biosolids to be worked into the soil.
Jones said that her family’s diarrhea and nausea lasted for two weeks after the biosolids were finally mixed into the earth, but she has not experienced any long-term health effects.
Jones said she can’t believe it’s still legal to deposit biosolids.
“Nobody should have to go through that,” she said of her experience.
HOW TO MAKE BIOSOLIDS
Land application of biosolids is nothing new, and has been practiced for decades.
The City of Ottawa’s says 80 per cent of municipalities in Ontario either apply all or a portion of their biosolids to soil. It is practiced in almost every province and U.S. state.
The biosolids are used as fertilizer, as they contain plant nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. They reportedly build up the soil structure, improve moisture retention and reduce soil erosion.
In and around Ottawa, biosolids have been dumped on and off for the past 20 years.
In 2009, the most recent information available, 12,037 wet tonnes of bisolids had been deposited in Ottawa. Forty-seven percent of that was distributed in West Carleton, mostly in what used to be identified as Fitzroy township.
Ottawa’s sewer sludge is produced at the Robert O. Pickard wastewater treatment plant in Gloucester.
The plant separates water from solids, filtering out the water and sending it back to the Ottawa River.
Inorganic solids like sand and grit are filtered out, leaving only the organic solids – fecal matter – which are pumped into anaerobic digesters that break down those solids, much like a stomach would digest food.
Stabilized sewage sludge is the resulting product, as defined by provincial regulations: a wet, mushy mess consisting of three to four per cent solids and the rest, water.
The City of Ottawa goes a step further, sending it through high-speed centrifuges which squeeze out as much water as possible. The result is material that is 28 to 32 per cent solid. You could pick it up and hold it in your hand; it looks like damp, dark topsoil and smells like manure.
When the decision is made to spread biosolids, the city gives advanced notice to residents within 450 metres of the spreading, and the biosolids must remain more than 90 metres away from a well or 0.9 metres from groundwater.
To minimize the smell, it is required to mix the biosolids into the soil on the same day they are applied.
No-charge well testing is also provided by the city upon request. Tests are taken up to four weeks before the spreading and between 10 and 12 weeks afterwards.
WHY USE BIOSOLIDS?
Erik Apedaile works with the City of Ottawa’s biosolid program, and said that land applications are requested by farmers and spread onto the farmer’s land at the city’s expense. No money exchanges hands.
“It’s sort of like a symbiotic relationship,” Apedaile said. “The farmer benefits because they save money on fertilizer and they’re going to get a very good corn crop. Secondly, they’re going to get their land worked by the city.”
The benefit to the city is that the biosolids are disposed of more cheaply than using alternative methods like incineration or dumping into a landfill.
“We have people, and we live in communities, and we make waste,” Apedaile said. “People are going to keep using the toilet. We’re not going to stop generating waste, and we have to manage it in the most responsible and cost-effective way that we can. This is probably the most sustainable way of managing this material.”
Apedaile said that he faces a lot of resistance from citizens who are against the idea of biosolids.
“Nobody likes biosolids next door to them,” he said. “It’s a visceral reaction. Nobody is calling us up and congratulating us, and I understand that.”
Apedaile said that many safety precautions are taken to ensure that biosolids don’t cause harm to humans. There has always been risk associated with farming, he said, including using chemicals and pesticides or even operating heavy machinery.
The microorganisms in biosolids are mixed in with the soil (which also contains microrganisms) but they are not motile, meaning they cannot move on their own.
“It’s difficult to think of a scenario where pathogens could move through a 90-metre buffer into a well,” he said, referring to the required distance that biosolids must remain from a well. “It’s not appropriate to say that it’s impossible, but we can say it’s not in the realm of the probable.”
Biosolids contain carbon, nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus, metals like iron and magnesium, bacteria and other microorganisms. Approximately 70 per cent of the biosolids’ mass is water.
Some studies have been done to test the potential health effects of biosolids on humans. One in Wood County, Ohio, was led by a team of researchers including Sadik Khuder, a professor at the University of Toledo.
In the 1990s, Khuder helped conduct a study on waste treatment workers who came in contact with biosludge, and results found that they had a higher rate of various gastrointestinal diseases and symptoms.
As a follow-up to this study in 2006, Khuder and his team mailed health surveys to 437 residents who lived within a mile of a biosolids deposit, and 176 people who were not exposed to biosolids.
The study, entitled Health Survey of Residents Living Near Farm Fields Permitted to Receive Biosolids, found that some health symptoms were statistically significantly elevated in those exposed to biosolids. They had a higher rate of excessive secretion of tears, abdominal bloating, jaundice, skin ulcers, dehydration, weight loss and general weakness.
The frequency of bronchitis, upper respiratory infection and giardiasis (an infection of the small intestine) were also significantly elevated in those close to biosolids.
Khuder’s study concluded that there was an increased risk for certain respiratory, gastrointestinal and other diseases among residents who lived close to biosolids, but added that more studies needed to be done to determine this conclusively.
Currently, Khuder is working on studies in other counties in the United States to determine the health effects of biosolids on humans. This time, instead of sending surveys for citizens to self-report their symptoms, the team is following a group of people before, during and after the dumping of biosolids to take measurements.
Khuder said they are in the process of publishing these studies, and could not discuss his findings.
“I think there is some harm,” Khuder said about the land application of biosolids, “but if the community takes some precautions I think they can be valuable assets to the community.”
CLOSER TO HOME
West Carleton-March Coun. Eli El-Chantiry said that biosolids are a hot-button topic that surfaces every now and again.
“It’s not about whether or not I think it’s a good idea,” he said, “But I do think it’s a good idea, and I think there is no harm based on (information from) the city’s medical health officers.”
He added that it’s not a city decision, but is instead one made legal under provincial legislation and is approved by the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs.
Plus, in the early days when Ottawa wasn’t offering biosolids to farmers, it didn’t stop them.
“Local farmers still managed to find the product from other places,” El-Chantiry said. “Whether the city gives the farmers biosolids or not, they could still use them.”
The list of rules and regulations in place for land application of biosolids keeps citizens safe, El-Chantiry said.
“I know some people move out here near to a farmer that does it and they don’t like it, but unfortunately this is part of our farming community and we have to live with it,” he said.
But none of this is comfort to Grey, who said she lives in fear of the day she will see the dump trucks returning and she smells that awful odour.
If they dump near her again, she said she will board up her house and have to stay in a hotel with her husband until the ground freezes.
She said that the nearby fields are used to grow corn for animals and beans for human consumption.
The farmer who owns the property next to Grey declined to comment.
Grey said she delivered a handwritten letter to his mailbox pleading with him to stop the second dumping of biosolids, but she received no reply.
“It’s disgusting that our province and our city are involved in this,” Grey said. “I trusted them. I thought that one call to public health would do it. And here I am, hundreds of calls later.”