Research Updates & News Commentary
Dr. Sally Brown reviews for July 2017 the topic of plastics, She reviews journal articles that cover the presence of plastics in wastewater and biosolids and their environmental fate, including soil The most salient point for me is that, despite their ubiquity in our world, the ultimate fate of plastic is poorly known to science. What we do know is that, over time, plastic fibers, fragments and beads continually reduce in size, making them ingestible to micro fauna, aquatic and terrestrial. The impact of plastics on the viability of these small animals, including worms, is not established. We should all be looking forward to advances in polymer chemistry that replace recalcitrant oil-based plastics with degradable plant based plastics. We as environmental stewards ought to advocate for this change.
Dr. Sally Brown reviews biochar in her June 2017 Research Update. Co-incidentally my most recent Biosolids TOPICS "The op Ten" included bichar as a topic.Pyrolysis holds a special place in the hearts of anti-biosolids activists these days, as this technology is spoken reverentially for its ability to transform biosolids into fuel and biochar.
Aside from the great variety of pyrolysis approaches and feedstocks, Dr, Brown explains that, though biochar convincingly sequesters carbon in soil, biochar's effectiveness in soil has a wide huge variety of impacts, not all good. Clearly, predicting what biochar works and what doesn't work as a soil amendment to improve crop growth is nigh impossible, without specific field trials. Pyrolysis is not a foolproof solution for biosolids management, and neither is the biochar it yields a dependably great soil amendment.
Dr. Sally Brown reviews in her May 2017 Research Update a question few of us have ever given thought. What happens to the polymer used in dewatering once the cake gets to land application? Are there any adverse effects of this chemical ingredient to soil microbes or plants?. When this question was posed to Dr. Brown she realized she had no good response. So she takes a look at that issue and reports to us. to this call was the same as mine -- let's take a look at the science.
MABA has just launched a new website, and we will find a new way to bring the details of Dr. Brown's review. Also, you should now be able to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org directly for any of the papers by Dr. Brown.
Dr. Brown is helping out here. While not a new topic for her, many of us had not been paying attention until NEBRA's Ned Beecher called the alarm for a regulatory threat arising in New Hampshire for the future of land application. That threat is tied to PFOAs (perfluorooctanoic acids), or more generally to the class called PFAS (perfluoroalkyl substances), "emerging" as a compound of human health concern. These compounds arrive in biosolids from consumer products and tapwater; they do not degrade; and when placed on the ground, some portion can migrate to groundwater. Not what we want to know. Many new science articles are appearing, and Dr. Brown gives us an overview.
Dr. Sally Brown reviews the work of Canadian reseaercher, Ed Topp. You may have caught the March 1st WEF webcast on "Emerging Contaminants in Biosolids." This is not an easy topic, but Dr. Brown walks us through the conclusions that involved field studies of a range of compound classes. These include flame retardants, antibacterial compounds and prescription pharmaceuticals. The bottom line is that biosolids amended soils show slightly elevated concentrations, but that the soil environment attenuates the compounds over time and the risk of harm to the soil, water or microfauna is negligible.
Dr. Sally Brown revisits an old friend of mine in her February Biosolids Research Update. Well, not really a friend, but a chemical I lived pretty close to and grew very familiar with back in 1993 when Phildelphia's biosolids program was upended by a large illegal discharge of polychlorinated biphenyls. Dr. Brown recently reviewed the topic of PCBs in biosolids. This follows from a call of a concerned citizen out in western Washington from a recently published journal article on risks of PCBs in biosolids. She read some key assumptions in this new paper that sent her back to original journal articles. The bottom line is that, no, PCBs are not compounds of significant concern in biosolids today.
Dr. Brown serves up a Holiday Greeting, a blurb of thankgiving to the wonderful work of wastewater treatment and biosolids practitiones in providing safe and clean water, and serving to improve soils. Hers is an endearing note.
Dr Sally Brown is concerned with our expression, the way we speak, and how that reflects our thoughts. She responds in this blog to findings, reported at the NBMA BioFest, of the public knowledge of and interest in biosolids topics. The advent of social media is providing a whole new way to understand, almost in real time, the formation of attitudes and judgments, and our realization of these factors will help us better communicate.
Dr. Sally Brown's October Research Update reports on a light-hearted presentation from the Northwest Biosolids Management Association's Biofest in mid September. Her argument underscores the need for a balanced viewpoint of risks and exposures in the interpretation of scientific results, at the juncture with policy. The lessons learned in the work of the last generation on trace element chemistry in soll-plant interactions are relevant to the study of residues of pharmaceutical products, Brown argues. More importantly, we need to guard against the alarmism that the hunt for research money engenders.
Dr. Brown frames for us in this month's blog the issue of food waste in the U.S., and its extraordinary financial and environmental cost to society. And, of course, her interest is in how the solution to this issue of increasing public awareness may be solved by initiative at our public wastewater treatment works. Most of us know that the interest in "co-digestion" has grown strong in our conference gatherings and among policy leaders. Sally reaffirms in her selection of research articles to review this month the exciting potential of anaerobic digestion facilities as a low-cost, high benefit solution for communities.
The August resaearch summary is an overview of Dr. Chaney's work with cadmium, one of the key elements of concern at the dawn of biosolids regulations in the 1980s. Dr. Chaney showed the importance of the biosoldis matrix in influencing the biochemical reactions of biosolids in the environment. He also drew the connection between dietary balance of elements and the potential for absorption of pollutants. This is great work, for which the honors given Dr, Chaney in his career are so well deserved.
In the July Research Update, Dr. Sally Brown brings us words of joy and comfort, if you are a fan of carbon sequestration and biosolids recycling. She explains that scientists now understand that stable increases to the reserve of organic carbon in soils are not due alone to the amount of carbon amendment added to the soil, but to the overall balance of nutrients added along with the carbon. Without those nutrients, carbon doesn't hang around. You guessed it, biosolids provides that kind of balanced nutrition favoriing a permanent kick upward in soil carbon. This is great news, for biosolids and carbon sequestration as a greenhouse gas mitigation tool.
Dr. Brown introduces the concept of soil microbes as the "highly exposed individuals" of concern to risk assessment in the use of biosolids. The bottom line is that biosolids doesn't effect soil nearly as much as the act of farming itself. But between that conclusion and the question of soil microbial communities, we realize a very complex world exists about which the new tools of genomic analysis is just opening to our understanding.
Sally takes on the biggest of all environmental stories in the press today, that of the element lead, especially the issues raised by exposures in Flint, Michigan. She reviews for us the chemistry of lead that makes our water infrastructure vulnerable to lead releases, and how that can translate into exposure to humans, with the most serious exposures being young children and their developing brains and nervous systems. The issue has been cast in Flint as an environmental justice issue, but the truth is that all water systems need to have integrity in their treatment and distribution system management.
Dr Brown gives us her favorite topic, the use of biosolids to reclaim scarred minelands. She draws on the seminal work of her mentors long-ago in the 1970s, including early work in Virginia and Pennsylvania, and then to work by Chicago and agencies in the State of Washington, now her home state. While the issues over the years has shifted, from a focus on metals to now persistent organic compounds, what has not changed is the astonishing results of the reclamation work in restoring soil. For that result we can all be proud and take home lessons.
Dr. Sally Brown's essay this month is about one of the microconstituents of the day -- PFOAs. We need no reminding that biosolids is reservoir for persistent chemicals in widespread use in commercial products. In this case, the chemical is perfluorinated organic compounds, your non-stick chemical additives. They have been in widespread use for many decades, but relatively recently have scientists sought to detect their occurrences throughout the biosphere. And, yes, they are everywhere, including biosolids. But that does not mean that the biosolids constitutes a significant source or environmental risk. In this review below, Dr. Brown provides a commentary on useful research abstracts, any one of which I can help you obtain.
Dr. Sally Brown's essay this month is a "back to basics." That is, she review the fundamentals of the use of biosolids as a source of nitrogen fertility for crops. As she points out, the biochemistry of nitrogen in the soil matrix is complicated, and it is a core aspect of our work with biosolids that we use the best information available from her cited publications to meet farmers's needs and prevent unnecessary losses. Dr. Brown's message is a reminder to me that deploying biosolids-borne N makes sense as a sustainable practice for protecting Earth's environment.
Dr. Sally Brown provides us an essay that appeared in the November 2015 BioCycle. She leaps into a long comparison of the loadings of contaminants in biosolids used for vegetable production to the loadings that a fictional character of a recent Matt Damon movie would have experienced in recycling his own pee and poop. The challenge for our industry is to have our recycling stories come across as compelling as this Martian survival story. To read Dr. Brown's blurb, in a BioCycle reprint, go here.
Dr. Sally Brown is taking on biosolids-borne pharmaceuticals. This focus arises from media attention to a recent article in Engineering Science and Technology that asserts plant growth impacts from anti-epileptic drug uptake by vegetable crops. As was so customary back in the days of heavy metal research, the scientist used extraordinarily high concentrations, used the compounds in their pure formulation, absent biosolids, and then leapt to unsupportable conclusions regarding potential effects from biosolids. This absolutely has Dr Brown at her most focused and incisive review.
Sally takes a look at the research of fear. Why is this? Well, despite an aggresive program of public outreach and education, there is heat in the Northwest. Again, why is this? A familiar story -- a mismanaged contract with a low bid cotractor and no genuine mechansim to conduct publid outreach. It turns out much is know and much is knowable about what works and deosn't work in dealing with public communications. Why is it that we don't seem to learn? Sally doesn't really answer that quesiton, but here research summary gets at some important points, so click here.
Dr. Sally Brown recommends Mork & Mindy reruns. You can find them on Hulu. She is revisiting the issue of nano particles in biosolids and their potential risk to the soil and plant environment via the biosolids exposure pathway. Her concern is that a reputable journal, the Journal of Environmental Science & Technology, published companion papers that seem to point to a significant effect. But the sticky wicket is that the method of simulating wastewater treatment is so flawed as to mirror the errors made a generation ago in presuming metal salts behaved the same as biosolids-borne metals at the soil-plant interface. In the case of nano-materials, as in metals, they plain don't. So you might as well spend your time with "nanu-nanu" with Robin Williams as with "nano-nano" in these journal articles, as at least Williams is fun.
Dr. Brown deals with the metaphysics of microconstituents. She notes that some scientists in this arena of research seem to found their work on a premise that any imprint of human-made chemical is unacceptable, presuming that one only need to continue searching deep and long enough and dire effects will be revealed. For another group, they look for the clear evidence of harm and suggest that until such is demonstrated we should call no unnecessary alarms. A third group says we need to be smarter in the future in projecting fate of new chemicals before introducing them to the environments. No one way is best. Scientific tools are rapidly advancing to allow us to hold anyone of the three metaphysical positions and engage in useful research. But the work needs to proceed.
Dr. Brown confronts head-on a kind of scientific naivete regarding the treatment and use of biosolids. If I were more pessimistic by nature, I would wonder if an intention to mislead was behind some of the representations made about the consistutents of biosolids. But if you stand back, squint a bit, you might see the point that, over the long haul, the resources that are "conservative" after human use can be recovered, and those that are "decomposable" can be transformed. This aligns with The Natural Step prnciples (Google it...). And the ideas align with the concept of resource reusie.
Dr. Brown takes on one of the most serious of all global environmental issues, that is the discharge of reactive nitrogen and phosphorus from agricultural activities and wastewaters. The concept that is explored is the role of treatment and waste recovery strategies for capturing and repurposing nitrogen and phosphorus to protect environmental quality and reserve resources for future generations. These concepts provide a huge and significant context for the work we biosolids managers do on a daily basis. They give us the language to explain the vital aspects of our goals.
Dr. Brown provides this month a primer on microplastics. It is the newest pollutant category about which you have never heard, about which you can easily imagine disaster, and about which scientists are still baffled about its potential effects. These are very, very small plastic beads used to in cosmetics and clothes, which mean they get flushed down the drain daily. Some get in the biosolids, some stay in the effluent., When you start to look for them, you can find them in aquatic systems and soils at biosolids application sites. They seem to be ingested by aquatic microfauna, but whether this is a crisis for the bottom of the food chain is a question still being explored. These are the subjects of this month's updates.
Sally flies above the banal biosolids issues to survey the country's water infrastructure challenges. The nation's treatment systems are deployed to do much more than they were in the past designed to do, including storm water pollution control, treatment for water reuse, supplementation of stream flow, removal of trace chemicals, and other environmental services. What are the costs and benefits of such services, and how can reinvestment in infrastructure contribute to social and economic benefits? These are some of this month's topics in the research updates.
Sally takes on our own version of the "merchant of doubts." My cultural reference here is to the new movie who features the well-paid craftsmen whom in the past brought us stymied anti-tobacco regulation a generation ago, and whom in the presence stymie action of greenhouse gas emissions. Sally, without the benefit of the new movie, explores research into the mechanisms by which vaccination-deniers have peddled falsehoods about risks of MMR (Measle, Mumps and Rubella) vaccinations. The results of the intentional misinformation on risks is real public health issues. We face the same kind of misinformation campaigns, but the task in front of us constitutes a very formidible one.
Sally takes up again metals. She reminds us that that the issue of high metals carried in biosolids is an historical one. Today's biosolids bears closer resemblance to manure and food in its profile of metals. Two important reminders is that the organic and mineral matrix of biosolids holds metals agains environmental and some of the metals are valuable necessary nutrients.
Sally takes on the Whole Foods mind-set again. That is, she takes on Whole Foods for its unfounded presumption that animal manures used in "organic farming" comprise acceptable risks compared to biosolids. A primary area of concern is the issue of known risks from pathogen transmission from manures. Pork is a leading culprit. That animal production is increasingly international and feedlot based has raised risks. Biosolids ought to be the least of Whole Foods worries.
Sally is inspired by Whole Foods wholely mis-guided biosolids policy to make the point that USDA Organic Rule fails to stand up to scrutiny as the "gold standard" for food safety. She points out that, for the most part, biosolids would be by far the safer alternative for use in growing vegetables. This is the first of several reviews Dr. Brown will provide on the subject of biosolids vs manure and the extent of mis-guided policies that have evolved. See her blurb here.