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News

Research suggests spreading of sewage sludge on fields poses practically no risk

Society For General Microbiology : 10 June, 2007  (Technical Article)
Society for General Microbiology researchers say food poisoning bugs in sewage sludge which is spread on fields are destroyed so quickly that they pose practically no risk.
Applying treated sewage sludge, known as biosolids, onto fields as an agricultural fertiliser and soil conditioner is a safe practice according to scientists from the Centre for Environmental Control and Waste Management at Imperial College, London, who were looking at what happens to disease-causing bacteria in soils.

“We know that there should be varying amounts of common gut bacteria in the solid residue which is left over after wastewater is treated at municipal works”, says Dr Michael Rogers of Imperial College. “What no-one knew is what actually happens to dangerous bacteria like the food poisoning bug E. coli O157 to inactivate them once this sludge is spread on fields”.

The researchers looked at the time it took for E. coli O157 to die off in soil, for a wide variety of types of sludge wastes, and for different types of soil under different conditions. Recycling the nutrient-rich sludge as fertiliser is considered more environmentally friendly than disposing of it in landfill or incinerating it, and dumping the waste into the sea is no longer permitted.

“The bacteria are grazed on as food by native micro-organisms called protozoa, one of the simplest forms of life, and we are currently developing a method of counting them using luminescent bacteria”, says Dr Rogers. “All of our research shows that using the solids from sewage waste to grow crops is safe in terms of the numbers and removal of hazardous bacteria in the soil, and beneficial in providing nutrients to soil”.

The scientists are now extending their research to look at other potentially dangerous species of bacteria such as Salmonella, Clostridium and Listeria.
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