Contaminant risks from biosolids land application: Contemporary organic contaminant levels in digested sewage sludge from five treatment plants in Greater Vancouver, British Columbia

  • Bright D
  • Healey N
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This study examines the potential for environmental risks due to organic contaminants at sewage sludge application sites, and documents metals and various potential organic contaminants (volatile organics, chlorinated pesticides, PCBs, dioxins/furans, extractable petroleum hydrocarbons, PAHs, phenols, and others) in current production biosolids from five wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs) within the Greater Vancouver Regional District (GVRD). There has been greater focus in Europe, North America and elsewhere on metals accumulation in biosolids-amended soil than on organic substances, with the exception of polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins and polychlorinated dibenzofurans. Another objective, therefore, was to evaluate the extent to which management of biosolids re-use based on metal/metalloid levels coincidentally minimizes environmental risks from organic contaminants. Historical-use contaminants such as chlorophenols, PCBs, and chlorinated pesticides were not detected at environmentally relevant concentrations in any of the 36 fresh biosolids samples, and appear to have virtually eliminated from sanitary collection system inputs. The few organic contaminants found in freshly produced biosolids samples that exhibited high concentrations relative to British Columbia and Canadian soil quality benchmarks included p-cresol, phenol, phenanthrene, pyrene, naphthalene, and heavy extractable petroleum hydrocarbons (HEPHs - nCl9-C34 effective carbon chain length). It was concluded that, with the exception of these petroleum hydrocarbon constituents or their microbial metabolites, the mixing of biosolids with uncontaminated soils during land application and based on the known metal concentrations in biosolids from the Greater Vancouver WWTPs investigated provides adequate protection against the environmental risks associated with organic substances such as dioxins and furans, phthalate esters, or volatile organics. Unlike many other organic contaminants, the concentrations of petroleum hydrocarbon derived substances in biosolids has not decreased within the last decade or more in the WWTPs studied, and - unlike persistent chlorinated compounds - the associated PAHs and other hydrocarbon constituents merit careful consideration, especially in the context of repeated land-application of biosolids.

Author-supplied keywords

  • Biosolids
  • Environmental risks
  • Land application
  • Organic contaminants
  • Sewage sludge
  • Soils

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  • D. A. Bright

  • N. Healey

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