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Wastewater Treatment Plant Worker Says Sludge is "Just a Pollutant and Not a Beneficial Soil Amendment"

August 24, 2008

Robert Bruce,                                                                                 
121 Boot Cove Road,
Saturna Island, B.C.,

Senator Barbara Boxer

Re: Sewage sludge exposures

Senator Boxer,

I worked in a wastewater treatment plant (Jan. 2000 until Feb. 2002) that processed class A (alkaline stabilization) and class B (lime addition but no heat treatment) sludge and occasionally processed sludge as controlled waste (no lime or heat) in a poorly ventilated facility. There were 5 operators running the sewage processing, two of  the 5 operators have become chronically ill (myself and my co-worker, Mr. Dean Richardsen) with very serious symptoms. Mr. Richardsen and I have ongoing claims with the Workers Compensation Board, both of us have very similar health complaints including but not limited to the following symptoms reported to my physician Dr. Julianna Losier MD CCFP in late 2002. Here is a quote from a letter written by her to the compensation board.

"Mr. Bruce was in extremely good health prior to working at the Saanich Peninsula Wastewater Treatment Plant. He has developed a number of serious symptoms since starting work at the plant. His major predominant symptoms were dizziness, fatigue, gastrointestinal symptoms with nausea and vomiting. He suffered neurological symptoms such as numbness and tingling in his feet. He has weight loss, heart palpitations, short term memory loss, serious cognitive problems along with slurred speech and continual headaches. He has also experienced anxiety problems, personality problems and irritability. He has experienced hair loss, pain in the abdominal area, kidneys, gallbladder and bowels along with serious digestive disorder. The numbness and tingling in his feet and hands eventually became worse and he also lost feeling in his legs, this will lead to peripheral neuropathy. This man was also having serious problems with his balance and a burning pain in the spine and low back with stiffness in his neck. He has experienced problems with his vision and appetite, bowel movements as well as loose stools. He has a general lack of energy and motivation and is naturally very depressed because of his extreme physical health problems. He has also suffered loss of temperature regulation and various other problems. The list is extensive!"

I can also add: At this time I have gone through 6 years of continuous treatment including but not limited to profound unexplained dental problems . I have had several of my teeth removed and tissue samples revealed that the infection (osteomyelitis) in my jawbone was caused by gram negative coccal bacteria isolated in capillaries in the tissue sample. In other words I had a gram negative blood infection from pathogenic bacteria that came from the sewage sludge (opportunistic pathogens). I was treated by a physician who practiced for many years as an orthopaedic and general surgeon but was now in general practice with some specialty in heavy metal detoxification. His medical report states unequivocally that I was exposed to heavy metals at the treatment plant. It took four years of grueling treatment to get my nervous system functioning properly again and remove enough of the heavy metals so that I could recover to some extent. My treatments with this physician included heavy metal detoxification and hundreds of nerve block injections to control pain and restore function to the autonomic nervous system. I have had to see the dentist over 50 times mostly to control pain in the nerves in the face and jaw, I have had several teeth removed and several bone debridements in the jaw. I also had a partially collapsed right lung in 2005 which resolved with segmental nerve block injections but has caused scarring of the right lung where I still suffer from ongoing pain and have been diagnosed with restrictive lung disease. In 2006 I spent months on long term antibiotic therapy with clindamycin, tetracycline and doxycycline along with over 40 sessions at the Vancouver General Hospital Hyperbaric Unit .  Even though 6 years of treatment has resulted in substantial improvement, I still have ongoing problems with a deranged metabolism and chronic neurological issues such as neuropathy (burning feet), frequency and urgency and ongoing issues with the right lung and jaw. I am currently on about 5 different drugs to control these health issues.

I have 3 medical-legal reports from specialists, all three reports state “that it is absurd to suggest that my health problems came from anything other than my work at the wastewater treatment facility”, there were no other exposures. The oral pathologist who examined my jaw tissues tells me that he isolated substantial numbers of gram negative coccal bacteria in my tissue sample from 2 capillaries in the sample (diagnosis was bacteremia). He told me that it is impossible for those bacteria to have come from any other source than the sewage plant. The other specialist I saw (in Maryland) did extensive testing on me and found damage to the neurotransmitters in the brain (MRI of the brain) and diagnosed irreversible damage to the nervous system and immune system from the sludge exposures as well as lung disease.

Incidentally, a Toxicologist hired by the employer to investigate the source of the health complaints of the employees, stated in his report “ that it is a rather realistic view that the health complaints suffered by the employees are likely due to exposure to Endotoxin or some other biological agent”. He also informed the employer that “if this material is to be used as a soil amendment it would be prudent to ensure that all the pathogens were killed. He stated that “the fact that indicator organisms were present meant that other more pathogenic organisms would also be present in the sludge”.  I can supply you with a copy of his report if necessary.

During the course of this affair, the employer did not disclose pertinent information to the workers compensation board, forged test documents, and manipulated investigations into the operation of the plant. Even though this was a brand new facility, all of the air handling units in the plant had to be replaced with larger units. When the plant was built there was opposition from the neighbours and of course the sludge treatment process creates signifigant odour problems. To reduce the odours being emitted to neighbouring properties, the employer deliberately shut down the fresh air fan to the solids processing area while we were working in there. This was done to keep the workspace under negative pressure and prevent the workspace from being pressurized and pushing odours outside, causing odour complaints from residents of neighbouring properties. Shutting this fan off, likely “greatly contributed” to the chronic illness that myself and my co-worker now have to live with.

By the way, most of the operators I have worked with believe that this material is just a pollutant and not a beneficial soil amendment. How can it be, primary and secondary treatment of wastewater remove pollutants from the wastewater influent and this concentrates in the sludge. It is absurd to suggest that adding lime and heating the sludge makes it into a beneficial soil amendment. Incidentally, they stopped putting it on farmland south of Vancouver B.C. because of the buildup of metals in the soil. This has also been the case in other jurisdictions in the U.S. and Canada. Thanks for listening.  

Robert Bruce