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This article in JEQ

  1. Vol. 24 No. 1, p. 5-18
    Received: Feb 1, 1994

    * Corresponding author(s):
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Toxic Metal Accumulation from Agricultural Use of Sludge: Are USEPA Regulations Protective?

  1. M. B. McBride *
  1. Dep. of Soil, Crop and Atmospheric Sciences, Cornell Univ., Ithaca, NY 14853.



The new USEPA regulations for the use of sewage sludges will permit concentrations of particular toxic metals to increase locally on agricultural land by a factor of a hundred or more above present soil concentrations. Short-term field experiments have shown that the adsorptive properties of sludges themselves often prevent excessive uptake of many of these metals into crops, a protection attributable largely to the added organic matter. This protection cannot be considered to be permanent or effective for all toxic metals, as indicated by data from old sludged sites. Differences in degree of protection are evident for greenhouse and field experiments, largely attributable to different rooting patterns and degree of sludge mixing in these two situations. The USEPA reliance on field data for metal uptake by corn (Zea mays L.) has led to an underestimation of phytoxicity thresholds applicable to a wider range of crops, in part because corn is able to root deeply and is metal-tolerant. Also, the decision to use 50% yield reduction and plant top (rather than root) concentrations of heavy metals as phytotoxicity indicators may have obscured incipient toxicity. Long-term field observations (several decades) often show that sludge-applied metals can remain sufficiently available, even in nonacid soils when total metal concentrations are below the proposed EPA limits, to harm sensitive crops and microbes. It is concluded that the ultimate impact of toxic metals from sewage sludges at levels approaching the proposed USEPA limits on various soil-crop systems is potentially harmful.

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