Friday, February 24, 2017

Biosolids Truth

We now have a word for it!

I read in the Washington Post (11/16/2016) that the Oxford Dictionaries recorded a 2000% increase in this word’s usage between 2015 and 2016, with the Brexit referendum in the UK and the Trump-Clinton campaign in the U.S.   Oxford’s international word of the year for 2016 is: “post-truth.”

Oxford defines post-truth as: “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

Oxford explains that the ‘post-‘ prefix doesn't mean ‘after’ so much as it implies an atmosphere in which a notion is irrelevant.” It further notes that “post-truth” captures the “ethos, mood or preoccupations of [2016].”

Facts are irrelevant?  I don’t need to get into a political debate to explain to all of you biosolids practitioners what post-truth feels like. We experience post-truth frequently in debates over recovering resource value from our biosolids. I feel I will be using “post-truth” frequently going forward, perhaps more to myself than to our critics.

That is why the MABA annual symposium in Wilmington, Delaware, provided so great a respite from post-truth in its many manifestations, when we were treated to the truth-telling of 15 experts on a wide range of biosolids truth. I want to review half of these truth-telling presentations this week, and the rest in the subsequent News.

I don’t think anyone attending the symposium wasn’t blown away by the magic of Dr. Jeffrey Buyer’s presentation (The role of microbes on soil health and questions for biosolids research) on soil microbes. For me, one of the very astonishing slides, one that still has my head shaking, involved graphical representations of the microbial population diversity in human waste versus the microbial communities in the sewage in sewer pipe versus the communities in biosolids. The microbial profiles were entirely different!  The biosolids truth: microbial populations we flush to the sewer bear almost no similarity to those in biosolids.  Who knew? 

Another point I took away from Dr. Buyer’s presentation was the resilience of soil microbial ecosystems. They preserve their characteristic microbial biome structure through drought, cultivation, fertilization and biosolids. There is one caveat, drawn from manure research, that repeated biosolids applications, over time, might be altering soil microbial communities. I find this a reassuring notion, for some reason, and one we can hope to support with future research.  Check out Dr. Buyer’s presentation, and see for yourself this biosolids truth: biosolids constitutes a microbiome, the effects of which on soil is unexplored.

We experimented with teleconferencing speakers from remote locations. One prize presentation (Results of the National Sewage Sludge Repository at Arizona State University: Contaminant Prioritization, Human Health Implications and Opportunities for Resource Recovery) was from a newly minted PhD at Arizona State University, Dr. Venkatesan. He presented the work he has done over the past 5 years, along with Dr. Rolf Halden, on the National Sewage Sludge Repository. The repository is the collections of representative biosolids sample taken during the several rounds of testing by the US EPA some 15 years ago. Dr Venkatesan analyzed these for persistent organic pollutants.  We celebrated with him the removal by the FDA of triclocan and triclocarban from consumer products this past year.  We learned this biosolids truth: FDA’s ban of triclosan and triclocarban will eliminate 60 % of persistent pollutant loadings in biosolids.

Dr Venkatesan had a bold proposal for us. He asserts that biosolids is very much like the human being, in that it contains lipids that capture from daily exposure lipophilic contaminants in food, water and consumer products. Biosolids could be an early warning material for exposures to pollutants, one that is more immediate than a post mortem evaluation of you or me. The biosolids truth: biosolids contains a large array of chemicals that are markers of human exposure.

Phosphorus was a VERY BIG DEAL in the two-day symposium.  Trudy Johnston had arranged participation by regulators from Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia, each states with phosphorus contributions to the Chesapeake Bay and with programs to reduce flows of phosphorus to the Bay.  Dr. Herschell Elliott of Penn State University provided in his presentation (Will phosphorus scuttle biosolids land application? ) the scientific basis for a nuanced approaches to the effects of soil phosphorus loadings. But to place the issue in the context of the politics of inter-state management, Synagro’s John Uzupis described  (An agronomic review of phosphorus in biosolids and how it relates to the Chesapeake Bay States of Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia ) the likely regulatory path. The biosolids truth: regulation of phosphorus at wastewater plants continues to be the easier path for regulators than control of farmland losses.

For me the bottom line is the faster we embrace technologies to extract P from wastewater influent or from sludge solids, the better we will be from a biosolids application standpoint.  This point circles back to Dr. Venkatesan’s presentation, when he tells this biosolids truth: biosolids is a valuable source of phosphorus and deserves recovery.  Dr. Venkatesan reported on the work of his ASU colleague, Paul Westerhoff, on calculating the value of biosolids (Characterization, Recovery Opportunities, and Valuation of Metals in Municipal Sludges from U.S. Wastewater Treatment Plants Nationwide). This study give a high commodity value to P among a large array of other elements.  Though the crisis is not yet upon us, at least not nearly as closely as climate change, the threat of future global P shortages genuinely warrant action today.

Yes, biosolids can be complicated, with a swirl of issues, such as persistent pollutants and phosphorus, yet science holds out, with hope and vigor, the possibility of TRUTH.  This will be the only way we can get beyond biosolids post-truth, with relentless commitment to Biosolids Truth.


In this season of ghosts and goblins, slime seems always to be an appropriate prop. In my very first professional presentation to a biosolids forum, an IWA conference in Los Angeles in 1989, I used a literary device, as I am wont to do, for my speech. I used a silly children’s book I had for my boys that described the many uses of Slugs. I, of course, transmogrified this conversation to one about “sludge,” in a sort of Gilda Radner’s Emily Litella “never mind” riff popular several decades ago on Saturday Night Live (see my favorite on Violins on TV).  But, really, the connection between slugs and sludge is more than onomatopoetic and more than a “d.”

One thing slugs and sludge have in common is “slime.” And slime is a lot more complicated and engaging upon second reflection than upon first, and certainly deserving of deep study.  

In the case of slugs, I learned in The Biochemistry and Mechanics of Gastropod Adhesive Gels just how complex is the trail mucus of a terrestrial slug. If you have ever inadvertently stepped on one, “slime” takes on real meaning. But to malacologists it is a gel with a dilute polymer mixture that contains a specific glue protein that crosslinks with other polymers, providing the adhesive properties necessary for snail locomotion. This “trail mucus” slime may very well may hold the secrets of future strong, flexible adhesives. Who knew?

So, what do we NOT know about slime in biosolids? A whole lot less, I think, than we need to know. Slime may be the key to digestibility, dewaterability, energy recovery and odors, a sort of biosolids form of the “four horsemen of the apocolyse” (another Halloween allusion.)

The slime I am referring to is a part of the emerging science of EPS, or extracellular polymeric substances. (This is not a mystical, Halloween season nod to ESP, or extrasensory perception.) How EPS in biosolids changes with treatment before, during and after sludge digestion is key to the quality of the final product. By quality I mean, at the end of the treatment process, does the product look and smell like a lump of p__p, or does it look and smell like garden soil?

Scientists are doing some amazing work on the EPS in sludge. EPS is released by microbial cells during either anaerobic or aerobic treatment processes. EPSs come in several forms. In the paper Effect of proteins, polysaccharides, and particle sizes on sludge dewaterability, EPS is separated into “four fractions: (1) slime, (2) loosely bound extracellular polymeric substances (LB-EPS), (3) tightly bound EPS (TB-EPS), and (4) pellet.” EPSs are very complex and their role in creating stable flocs, their influence on dewaterability, and the impacts of different treatment on their characteristics have been difficult for scientist to tease apart. Extracellular polymeric substances (EPS) of microbial aggregates in biological wastewater treatment systems: A review concluded: “the knowledge regarding EPS is far from complete and much work is still required to fully understand their precise roles in the biological treatment process.”

Slime is in many ways a positive component of EPS. The journal article Extracellular polymeric substances (EPS) producing bacterial strains of municipal wastewater sludge: Isolation, molecular identification, EPS characterization and performance for sludge settling and dewatering concluded: “The slime EPS was better for bioflocculation….” Against this flocculation role, slime is a negative for dewatering, and a research focus is on how treatments alter the slime. In the Effect of proteins, polysaccharides, and particle sizes on sludge dewaterability, we are told that “During hydrolysis and acidification, PN [protein] was transferred from the pellet and TB-EPS [tightly bound-EPS] fractions to the slime fraction… Further investigation suggested that CST [capillary suction time] was affected by soluble PN…, “ which is not a positive attribute.

Some creative research is in full swing to modify EPS. A bioengineer, S Kavitha, at Anna University in India, entered full force in 2014 the science literature with studies examining an array of biological and chemical approaches to altering the EPS of sludges to achieve improved processes. Her focus has been primarily on the digestibility and dewaterability of waste activated sludge (WAS). She has examined different additives for breaking up EPS-controlled flocs in WAS to expose them to biological decomposition:

But Kavitha is far from alone in studying ways of altering EPS. Researchers from other groups have recently given us these papers:

We even have two new terms of art describing biological approaches to biosolids processing -- bioleaching and biodrying.

The term “bioleaching” is applied to a biological approach to conditioning biosolids for dewatering. Bioleaching involves inoculating WAS with specialized bacterium, along with an effusion of iron, to chew up the EPS, and hence improving dewaterability. Researchers are looking at Acidithiobacillus ferrooxidans -- Fate of extracellular polymeric substances of anaerobically digested sewage sludge during pre-dewatering conditioning with Acidithiobacillus ferrooxidans culture.  This paper had four highlights: “Rapid flocculation of sewage sludge was achieved using iron-oxidizing bacteria; A. ferrooxidans biogenic flocculant significantly improved the sludge dewatering; a rapid reduction of EPS content was achieved during sludge flocculation; and, a positive correlation between EPS reduction and sludge dewaterability was observed.” This all sounds great.

Other researchers report on “biodrying.” In the paper Structure modification and extracellular polymeric substances conversion during sewage sludge biodrying process the authors claim “62% of total water removal [in a ]thermophilic phase ... transforming bound water to free water and modify(ing) the sludge structure and improves dewaterability.” This approach has already leaped to the commercial side. It was presented as the BioDryer reactor at the WEF Intensification of Resource Recovery conference in August 2015 by BioForceTech Corporation.

Uniting these approaches to altering biosolids properties is the deployment of biological, in contrast to mechanical, processes to reduce EPS in sludges and drive physical properties in favorable directions of digestibility and dewaterability.

This brings me back to one of the mysteries of my early days in biosolids, back to my “never mind” word play with slugs and sludge, and back to the day before “biosolids.” I wondered then why was the Chicago air-lagooned biosolids so pleasant and why was Tacoma’s Tagro such a great product? Perhaps what we didn’t know then, and what we are learning today, is that those processes chewed up the EPS effectively, with a big payback. I asked back then why was Philadelphia’s biosolids compost so gummy and I ask today why is the thermally hydrolyzed biosolids surprisingly pungent? Perhaps what we still don’t know today is how to chew up the EPS effectively.

We are still very early on the learning curve with EPS, so when we do learn what we need to learn, I am betting that we will then be close to describing a “high quality biosolids” product. Then our EPS will be transmogrified into ESP, an Extra Special Product.

Gut Check!

I have a tremendous idea for a new biosolids research project, but first….

It was no big surprise that one of my wife’s Christmas gifts to me was Gut: The Inside Story of our Body's Most Underrated Organ.  I have displayed at home, as well as in my biosolids commentaries, an abnormally high interest in the human gut microbiome.  To my delight, this book, translated from German and written by Giulia Enders, a young female, award-winning, Ted-talk-giving, science writer, is a breezy and comprehensive work. It is, as Amazon says, a “beguiling manifesto.”

Clearly, one of its main messages is that the health of the human gut microbiome effects the health and well-being of its host, that is you and me.  I checked with Amazon, and Ender’s “gut” book shares the virtual bookshelves with a whole host of similar titles, also drawing on the connection between happy microbes and happy people: The Microbiome Cookbook: 150 Delicious Recipes to Nourish your Microbiome and Restore your Gut Health, The Mind-Gut Connection: How the Hidden Conversation Within Our Bodies Impacts Our Mood, Our Choices, and Our Overall Health,  The Good Gut: Taking Control of Your Weight, Your Mood, and Your Long-term Health

This flurry of book is all very new, each book printed in 2016.

Then the news services on January 3rd reported that a new organ had been uncovered in the human body, one connected to the intestines, and called the “mesentery.” Another young female science writer with Live Science, Sarah G. Miller, wrote the article Gut Decision: Scientists Identify New Organ in Humans:  “scientists can now focus on learning more about how the organ functions, Coffey said. In addition, they can also learn about diseases associated with the mesentery, he added.” 

I can confidently assert that we will be hearing a lot about gut flora over the next decade, and we should take note of this for our work with biosolids, particularly for the positive connection between microbial communities and human health. A major research question was which gut microbes caused major gastrointestinal illnesses, such as Crohn’s Disease and ulcerative colitis, in hope of an easy path for medical control. But the nature of gut ecosystems was too complex for a simple answer. Instead researchers turned to the question how the gut ecosystem actively keeps us all healthy, particularly when so many species of gut microbes are known human pathogens.  

Over the past several years, journal articles have addressed these questions:

·        Does choice of foods affect the microbiome? Well, yes, at least in part (Long‐term monitoring of the human intestinal microbiota composition).

·        Does use of antibiotics alter the gut flora? Well, yes, at least in part (Diversity, stability and resilience of the human gut microbiota).

·        Does consuming daily doses of probiotics alter the gut flora? Well, yes, at least in part (Intestinal microbiota in human health and disease: the impact of probiotics). 

·        Is obesity influenced by gut flora? Yes, at least in part  (Linking the gut microbiota to human health).  

·        Can gut flora really influence an individual’s emotional well-being? Well, yes, at least in part (Better living through microbial action: the benefits of the mammalian gastrointestinal microbiota on the host).

Wow! Who would have guessed that our health and well-being is really the result of our wonderful gut flora?

I realized in reading these reports that I had only a foggy idea of what comprised the human gut flora.  We are all familiar with E coli as an important class of bacteria, but its distinction for us is not in its role in the human microbiome but its choice as an indicator of environmental contamination.  And, as it turns out, it is not a particularly good indicator at that.  Escherichia coli is just one species in a large class of protobacteriods, a group that together makes up perhaps a quarter of the 3 trillion microbes in the adult human gut. E coli’s role is relatively small in the gut, but its presence in activated sludge treatment works turns out to be very significant, which is one reason (along with its easy culturability in the laboratory) we know so much about it, why we track it, and why we regulate it.

But we are learning of far more important microbes.  One particularly interesting microbial group in the gut is called Lachnospiraceae.  Besides its very dominant role in the gut flora in a class of organisms called the Firmicutes, this group is interesting because it connects to my next topic, the sewerage system. One young, female professor in Wisconsin, Sandra L. McLellan, has emerged as a leader in researching the unique microbial ecosystem of sewers. She has identified the class of bacteria Lachnospiraceae as a robust indicator of human fecal waste, occurring in the human gut and in the sewer, and being distinct from microbes from other animal and environmental sources.  Check out her paper, Sewage reflects the distribution of human faecal Lachnospiraceae, showing that public sewers fed with human-sourced food are the habitat for unique microbial communities, and this one microbe class that can be readily tracked, the Lachnopriracea. You heard it here first.

Just as we are on the early part of the learning curve of the microbial communities of sewers, the same is true with biosolids itself.  This brings me to Kyle Bibby’s work while a PhD student at Yale University, where he characterized the biota of different biosolids products.  In his paper, Pyrosequencing of the 16S rRNA gene to reveal bacterial pathogen diversity in biosolids, his intention is to clarify the potential array of pathogenic organisms, viruses as well as bacteria, that may be present in biosolids. But his work necessarily included a broader survey of microbial.  He discovered that different processes, such as aerobic versus mesophilic anaerobic digestion vs composting, resulted in biosolids with microbial ecosystems common within processes but different between processes.  Wastewater plants grow out of the influent food and microbes different biosolids-based microbial communities, each characteristic of treatment facility processes.

In his presentation to the MABA Annual Symposium, The role of microbes on soil health and questions for biosolids research, Dr. Jeffrey Buyer had covered Bibby’s work, but then extended the conversation to the effects of biosolids on soil microbial communities. He summarized soils research that showed many soil communities are stable, just as in the human gut, and that additions of various organic feedstocks, biosolids along with manures, help to push around, but not to fundamentally change, those soil microbial communities.  Where we humans might eat a carton of Greek yogurt for our daily dose of probiotics, our annual application of biosolids may do the same for a healthy soil.  Biosolids microbial communities make soils happy.

Dr. Buyer’s presentation this past November reminded me that Dr. Xunzhong Zhang at Virginia Tech, made a presentation to the 2013 MABA Annual Symposium, “Biostimulants Released from Biosolids have impact on Crop Stress Tolerance and Yield.”  Dr. Zhang showed that biosolids release auxins and stimulate soil microbes to do the same, which together significantly increase crop growth. He shows that biosolids makes for happy soil microbes, in turn making plants happy.

So where have I gone with this? Our historical engagement with biosolids microbes has largely been in what goes wrong in controlling pathogen indicators in our treatment processes or where their presence in the environment is a marker for pollution. Instead, what we are learning, starting with the human microbiome, is how critical complex microbial communities are for health -- the health of our bodies, the health of transformative processes in sewers, the health of our activated sludge treatment systems, and in the health-giving properties of biosolids for plant growth. 

The analytical tools are at hand and affordable, and only our imagination limits the questions we can ask. This is my research question.  What attributes of biosolids microbial communities contribute most to a positive growth response in plants, and how can we design our treatment plant equipment to optimize those attributes?  Instead of “high quality biosolids” research focusing mainly on attributes of odor, aesthetics, and handleability that influence human sensibilities, let’s look at biosolids from the viewpoint of the healthy plant.  That would be a worthy research project. At least, that is what my gut tells me!

Stop the POP!

Research on POPs is really popping.  We are learning at an accelerating rate of the fate of “persistent organic pollutants,” or the POPs, flushed down home drains and treated in systems where biosolids are destined for farm soils.

Our POP research rate may not be fast enough for some, as I learned very recently. David Lewis, long-retired from EPA but not from anti-biosolids activism, has posted to the United Sludge Free Alliance his recommendation for a new EPA Clean Soil Standard. I was reminded of just how “chemophobic” or “chemonoic” some people can be.  Dr. Lewis’s report would have you believe the threat from POPs is significant and growing. It is neither, and accumulating research shows this to be true.

We are not only learning about POPs, we are reducing POPs.  Back in the summer, the FDA issued a rule banning triclosan, triclocarban and other antibacterial POPs found in soaps and toothpaste.  We learned from Dr. Arjun Venkatesan, Arizona State University, in his presentation to the MABA Annual Symposium, that this action will remove more than half of the POPs that find their way into biosolids. 

Dr. Venkatesan has a unique vantage point to see POPs in biosolids. He is principal author of 7 science reports stemming from exhaustive analyses of the U.S. National Sewage Sludge Repository. The repository is a collection of representative biosolids samples, originating with three national surveys conducted by the US EPA two decades back, and now under the direction of Dr. Rolf Halden, Center for Environmental Security. Dr. Halden is “a noted expert in determining where in the environment mass-produced chemicals wind up…” and that expertise encompasses biosolids.

Dr. Halden has recently made the point that widespread use of industrial chemicals ensures that new questions about these chemicals will arise continually and science will be ongoingly playing catch-up to understand their potential effects on human and environmental health. Dr. Rolf Halden described the generation-long process well in Epistemology of contaminants of emerging concern and literature meta-analysis.

As environmental stewards, we biosolids practitioners necessarily need to support sound scholarship into POPs.  The chemical and biological matrix in which POPs occur is highly complex and reactive, and the science will be deeply complicated.

The European Union seems to lead the way in addressing the fate of POPs.  It has for two decades guided the testing for degradability of chemicals (OECD Degradability Testing) with a guidance document listing 7 types of tests. One test deploys a “301C sludge,” an “activated sludge precultured with synthetic sewage containing glucose and peptone.” Another is the 314 test which simulates transformations of chemicals in a sewer system.

In the US, the Water Environment & Research Foundation has led the way in POP research.  Currently at work is Dr. Drew McAvoy, the principal investigator of the fate of flame retardants and two antibiotics in biosolids. His project on  “Priority Trace Organics” appears right above “High Quality Biosolids from Wastewater” on WE&RF’s list of Recent Contract Awards. 

Those of us with an eye on biosolids may not be fully aware that POP degradability is being studied in different portions of the wastewater system.  These include the sewer system, the activated sludge process, nutrient removal processes and several kinds of digestion. Researchers are learning that unique microbial communities at work in each step can be important to the attenuation of POPs.

If we still believe the sewerage system is a mere collector, how wrong we are!  One paper shows that “biodegradation in the sewer has a substantial impact on levels of surfactants and surfactant metabolites that ultimately reach wastewater treatment plants” (Biodegradation of nonionic and anionic surfactants in domestic wastewater under simulated sewer conditions). Another researcher, hoping to track illegal drug use, complained “in sewage epidemiology, it is essential to have relevant information of the sewer system” (Effects of sewer conditions on the degradation of selected illicit drug residues in wastewater) .

The fate of POPs within the treatment plant has proved enormously difficult to characterize. Classes of compounds degrade through different mechanisms, with water solubility being a key discriminator for biosolids-borne or effluent-borne POP discharges.  Plant configurations vary, with the cycling of aeration, anoxic and anaerobic processes apparently having great influence on POP degradation. One article pointed out that “biotransformation parameters are impacted by in-situ carbon loading and redox conditions (Factors impacting biotransformation kinetics of trace organic compounds in lab-scale activated sludge systems performing nitrification and denitrification).   An early review of this topic, Refinement of biodegradation tests methodologies and the proposed utility of new microbial ecology techniques, explained: “We were also able to compare various processes and pointed out activated sludge with nitrogen treatment and membrane bioreactor as the most efficient ones.”  It seems we may one day learn how to design our treatment plants specifically to increase POP degradation.  Hold that thought!

Our choice of biosolids stabilization technologies makes a big difference. I won’t get into the effects of digestion here, which are significant in their own right, but I will admit that, for POP reduction, composting is one of my favorite stabilization methods. A large body of research shows how robust composting is for POP degradation.  The abundance of compost/POP research is in part because composting applies not only to biosolids but to the much vaster supply of animal manures, which like biosolids contain POPs. The good news is that fairly rudimentary composting techniques yield good results:  “low-level manure management, such as stockpiling, after an initial adjustment of water content may be a practical and economical option for livestock producers in reducing antibiotic levels in manure before land application ( Antibiotic Degradation during Manure Composting).

Compost/POP research also stems from the concern that compost is a consumer product, with a direct exposure pathway to humans. But compost has consistently shown strong results in mitigating risks.  For one paper (Organic Micropollutant Degradation in Sewage Sludge during Composting under Thermophilic Conditions)  concluded “concentrations of all 12 micropollutants decreased during composting, and degradation was statistically significant for 7 of the 12 micropollutants.”

Much of our Biosolids/POP research has been with the pathway of biosolids to soil to micro/macro fauna (including humans). Understanding the gaps in the research record on these pathways was an early WE&RF concern.  Trace Organic Chemicals in Biosolids-Amended Soils: State-of-the-Science Review provided the backdrop to the work that Dr. McAvoy now has underway. 

For the most part, the research record for many types of biosolids-borne POPs re-affirms the capacity of the land treatment system, consisting of soil minerals, organic matter and in synergistic relationships with microbial communities, to trap and degrade a wide range of POPs.  From among many dozens of recent journal articles in this domain, one review article, Plant uptake of pharmaceutical and personal care products from recycled water and biosolids: a review, concluded: “Field studies showed that the concentration levels of PPCPs in crops that were irrigated with treated wastewater or applied with biosolids were very low.”  In another pertaining to potential human health risks, “our assessment indicates that the majority of individual PPCPs in the edible tissue of plants due to biosolids or manure amendment or wastewater irrigation represent a de minimis risk to human health” ( Human health risk assessment of pharmaceuticals and personal care products in plant tissue due to biosolids and manure amendments, and wastewater irrigation ).  Nevertheless, in recognizing the enormous complexity of biological and chemical systems, “highlighting the significance of contaminant and soil properties in influencing risk assessment,” we must inevitably turn to risk modeling: A quantitative risk ranking model to evaluate emerging organic contaminants in biosolid amended land and potential transport to drinking water. 

Modeling may seem to be the poor cousin to comprehensive analytical investigations, but it may be the great way forward. Imagine a future in which you “dial-in” options for source control, sewer maintenance, in-plant processes, biosolids stabilization methods and land treatment protocols, all of which, when taken together, accomplish nearly complete removal of POPs from pathways of human and environmental exposure. To accomplish so grand an endpoint, however, means making POP degradation an intentional and central goal of biosolids management, not an incidental consequence.
How about we ”’POP’ the clutch” and accelerate our research into the fate of POPs through the entire treatment system and DRIVE THE POP OUT OF BIOSOLIDS.

Learning to be Proud!

This is a HUGE opportunity, posted just days ago, so act now!

Teach Yourself Deep Learning with TensorFlow and Udacity.   Deep learning has become one of the hottest topics in machine learning in recent years. With TensorFlow, the deep learning platform that we recently released as an open-source project, our goal was to bring the capabilities of deep learning to everyone.”

Why wouldn’t everyone want “deep learning?” But what the heck is it?  It is what has Google rolling out driverless cars. It is what has medical imagining equipment more successfully identifying skin cancers than board certified dermatologists. It is what has operator-less wastewater plants working so well. Just joking about this last one. Google is providing inexpensive, often free training to the entire world. This is how exciting innovation is fostered globally!

I was on a search for great examples for on-line course work on the basics of biosolids land application, particularly videos. I found pitches for new centrifuges, and I found happy stories about biosolids use, particularly wonderful ones for Loop.  

But I did not find many detailed on-line instruction on best practices for production of good quality biosolids and for its application to land.  I did not find courses on biosolids use that were verified by course exams and documented with certificates of completion.  

I did, however, find many interesting, vaguely related stuff.

You can become a certified master gardener.  State universities throughout the MABA region offer coursework. Virginia Tech offers its Master Gardener Program, as do Extension Services for Penn State, Rutgers, Cornell and University of Maryland. But, if you want to learn to be a master gardener on-line, you need to go to the Pacific Northwest, of course, as in Oregon’s Master Gardener Online.

You can become a certified master composter.  The Master Composter/Soil Builder Program is an on-line program offered by Seattle Tilth, also from the computer savvy Pacific Northwest. Like gardening, each state and some municipalities offer compost certification.

Google is very distracting.  I found a slew of other fascinating on-line training programs.

You can become a certified master marijuana grower. Check out the Online Certification Course at CTU, that is the Cannabis Training University, and you can even work toward your Medical Marijuana Certificate, offered by the TMCIGlobal (The Medical Cannabis Institute).

How about a being a certified master beer drinker?  You can join the exclusive club of 2,500 Certified Cicerones; start your program by taking a free, 8 session online course on the chemistry of beer, and, can you believe it, you can work toward a certificate in beer and food pairing!

Wow! Mastering gardens, composting, marijuana and beer, from the comfort of your home and with a certificate to prove your accomplishment!

But what if you want to be a certified master biosolids manager?  This will take some digging.

A number of years ago a team of us worked with the Association of Boards of Certification to create the Land Appliers Certification Exam and a companion WEF/ABC Biosolids Land Appliers Guide to Preparing for the Certification Examination. But these tools and exams are not on-line and their use has languished.

The Water Environment Federation (WEF) is an important source of biosolids training, but mostly for managers and engineers.  WEF offers engineering type education, including a large number of “distance learning” modules, one which is Solids Handling, and for which engineers can obtain professional development hours, or PDHs. WEF also sells, for a rather steep $600 ($400 for members), its Biosolids Management Bundle, based on the Biosolids Environmental Management System (BEMS). This is a high-level, management type cut at biosolids practices, not qualifying for PDHs or CEUs.   The National Biosolids Partnership, now a program of WEF, produced a webcast in October 2012 called “BIOSOLIDS 101” -- Fundamentals of Practice. This is available for free view on WEF’s YouTube channel, the playlist of “Webcasts of the Month,” number 16 of 19, and offering 1.75 hours of PDH credits. You need to hunt for it by name to find it.  

Several states do biosolids land application training.  Of the seven states in the MABA region, biosolids courses are provided by the environmental agencies in two. Pennsylvania DEP has its “Land Application of Biosolids Training Course,” generally offered in classroom settings twice annually, and Virginia DEQ offers classes in “Biosolids Land Applicator Certification Training and Exam,“  both for initial certification and continuing education.  Field operators and supervisors in these states are required to undergo classroom training, and state coursework provides drilling on actions necessary for compliance with regulations. These courses are necessarily well attended by local operators, but they even attract practitioners from outside states. But they need to be in classrooms, which can be difficult for some operators to attend.

State requirements to maintain professional engineer licenses create demand for courses and training, biosolids one among many topics. These requirements may be met by attendance at professional conferences, including MABA’s, but a second avenue is online training.  One such avenue is provided by PDHOnline, an education firm that offers two biosolids courses. Both are presented by talented senior operator, Jim Newton, at the Kent (DE) County Public Works. These are: C267 Land Application of Biosolids/Septage and C402 Operations of Municipal WWTPs:Solids Processes, and each will set you back $200. Jim has been a prodigious course instructor, with a hundred or so in his quiver, most not in wastewater, ranging in length from one hour to eight, including one on co-digestion.

State universities provide limited biosolids training.  Most state extension services limit their outreach to issuing technical bulletins on field application practices (e.g., Pennsylvania’s on Biosolids Quality was pretty good, for its day, some 20 years ago).  Virginia has put some energy into a more modern, webinar-type instruction. Still available on a link through WebEx is Land Application of Biosolids, three one-hour episodes hosted and led by Dr. Greg Evanylo, covering the character of biosolids, aspects of potential environmental effects, and its use and management. I recommend the series, though it is rather simple, designed more for local officials than for practitioners.

I still have this underlying unanswered question: how are treatment plant operators and field application technicians getting their training? This important group, the very employees directly responsible for careful, compliant biosolids generation and utilization, are not served, at least not consistently, by convenient training opportunities. The Eastern PA Water Pollution Control Operators Association has two biosolids courses approved by the Pennsylvania DEP to meet continuing education unit requirements for operator licensing. But the courses are seldom held, and some of the volunteer instructors have retired.  Similarly, the Maryland Center for Environmental Training offers one course on “Solids Handling,” at its Harford County location, most likely handling in-plant topics.  

With the rapid growth of new, convenient training tools, we as an environmental practice ought to be doing better.  If we commit to a high level of performance in biosolids generation and utilization. with attractive, odor-free product, with landowners happy with productive soils, and supportive neighbors, we need a highly-trained and diligent workforce. Smart phones, webinars, on-line courses, customized feedback…  these are available widely in much of today’s world. How can we apply these tools to providing training for our workforce?

Why are we so late to the on-line training and certification? I have been told the most important missing element is the lack of state-level mandate for such training and certification. In today’s anti-government climate, it’s a far stretch to expect that to change any time soon. What we are left with is a need for inspired leadership for training coming from within our profession.

Marijuana growers and beer drinkers can muster this “professional” self-training, and I believe we can, too. Perhaps we need a clever marketing twist. Let’s call this program, for instance, the Certified Residual Application Professional.  C.R.A.P. could give us a reason to be proud.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Biosolids Goes Viral

Bacteria usually command front page, sort of the Donald of the microbe world. This week the Listeria bacteria powerfully disrupted Dole’s sale of bagged greens from Ohio (CDC: 1 Dead In Michigan From Listeria Linked To Dole Salads ), and several weeks back E coli shuttered Chipotle in various states, but particularly Oregon. 

But the more menacing of microbe stories this past week centered on viruses.

While Chipotle had its problem with E coli contamination, it also suffered from a virus, the norovirus, tied to unclean workers and food handling practices. Norovirus made ill a far larger number of patrons and workers than had E coli, not just in one locale, but in two, California and in Massachusetts (Chipotle’s Norovirus Outbreak Is Not A Typical Norovirus Outbreak ).

If you like this kind of stuff, you can’t beat the CDC reports of its investigations:  Vital Signs: Multistate Foodborne Outbreaks — United States, 2010–2014). (Hint: beware of organic alfalfa sprouts.) You can learn also of the viral causes of the over 100 million GI illnesses in the U.S. annually, particularly noroviruses and Norfolk-Like Viruses (NLVs).

Over the past two years, viruses clearly win the popular vote for health-scare. We had Ebola show its terrible rapid spread in 2014 into 2015. We in the wastewater industry have learned a bit about risks associated with discharge of human fluids to publicly owned sewers, and we have federal guidance to help us (Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) on Interim Guidance for Managers and Workers Handling Untreated Sewage from Suspected or Confirmed Individuals with Ebola in the U.S.You  may have caught the news from WHO that “all known chains of transmission” of Ebola infections were closed (Latest Ebola outbreak over in Liberia; West Africa is at zero, but new flare-ups are likely to occur ). The next day the report came out that an Ebola case, an isolated one, had been reported. The world is not Ebola-free.

The latest viral scare, of course, is Zika. Zika is a mosquito-borne virus, like the better known West Nile Virus (WNV), but is scary for the horrifying birth defects and potentially debilitating paralysis. That it is not carried in animal, as is WNV in birds, will help limit Zika’s spread among humans in the United States.

This past week also witnessed another viral scare, an outbreak of avian flu in Indiana. The outbreak in Indiana was not the highly pathogenic avian influenza (NPAI) that resulted in loss last year of 48 million poultry and $3.3 billion, but a lesser pathogen.  Is there a risk to human health? We need to wait and see.

But we have increased viral risks from that great vector – stupid people. I found these two CDC reports of potential viral risks.  A New Jersey woman administered dozens of flu shots with the same unsanitary needle, and we had an NGO issue fraudulent rabies vaccine certificate to dogs imported to the U.S. from Egypt.

Stupid people seem to be the vector for water risks in Flint, Michigan., Yes, this is a lead issue, not a pathogen issue, but fundamentally the Flint story is about egregiously negligent government officials.  

Flint raises my biosolids guard.  With viruses emerging in prominence as world health issues, and with the failures of municipal utility management causing people serious harm, how can we in biosolids not pause to revisit our own responsibility for ensuring public health?  Are we sufficiently informed about connections between viruses in biosolids and human health risks, and do connect our choice of biosolids processes and practices to specific targets for viral pathogen reduction?  Are we witnessing a failure to advance the science behind biosolids pathogen and vector attraction reduction regulations? Have we ever witnessed biosolids folks doing stupid things? Yes, these are rhetorical questions.

If you haven’t reviewed the literature on viruses in biosolids over the past several years, you may not be aware of how rapidly our knowledge-base has increased about biosolids-borne viruses. 

Researchers have applied new DNA analytical tools to scan biosolids for a wide variety of virus types.  instead of focusing on a few potential indicators viruses, an array of viruses are measured.  The Yale University research team, headed by Dr. Jordan Peccia, in  Viral metagenome analysis to guide human pathogen monitoring in environmental samples , found “the RNA viruses parechovirus and coronavirus and the DNA virus herpesvirus were the most abundant human viruses in the biosolid sample tested here, [so that in the future we can] ensure that highly enriched and relevant pathogens are not neglected in exposure and risk assessments.” Their hope is that “as the costs of next-generation sequencing decrease, the pathogen diversity described by virus metagenomes will provide an unbiased guide for subsequent cell culture and quantitative pathogen analyses and ensures that highly enriched and relevant pathogens are not neglected in exposure and risk assessments.”

Treatment processes don’t necessarily serve as adequate barriers to all pathogens. For example, the Yale team, in  Survey of Wastewater Indicators and Human Pathogen Genomes in Biosolids Produced by Class A and Class B Stabilization Treatments, reported that in biosolids composting systems Legionella bacteria seemed have the potential to proliferate during composting to thrive in biosolids composting processes.”  The authors also argued that “we can translate these infectious adenovirus concentrations in bulk biosolid samples to a downwind aerosol concentration using a previously described and calibrated aerosol transport model for respirable biosolid material at off-site locations.”

The Yale team’s results also offer ideas for improving regular monitoring of biosolids products.  The paper stated that in “…a cross section of biosolid samples (Fig. 1), male-specific coliphages appear to be a more stringent test of inactivation.  …pathogen concentrations for a given sample were more comparable to male-specific coliphage values; this result suggests that they would be more useful for documenting pathogen presence than fecal coliforms.”  In another recent journal article by this team, Identification of viral pathogen diversity in sewage sludge by metagenome analysis, the authors recommended that the industry should “consider a broader selection of viruses in environmental fate and transport studies, and importance of considering multiple human exposure routes to sewage sludge and wastewater.”

The EPA lab in Cincinnati has contributed recently to the evolving science of measuring viruses.  Eric Rhodes, head of the team at USEPA Cincinnati Labs, authored a recent article Determining Pathogen and Indicator Levels in Class B Municipal Organic Residuals Used for Land Application.  Dr Rhodes writes: “Overall, this study reveals that high concentrations of enteric pathogens (e.g., Cryptosporidium, Giardia, and HAdV) are present in biosolids throughout the United States. …. A more thorough analysis of the relationship between pathogenic HAdV and fecal indicator organisms is warranted. Nonetheless, these results reveal the potential risks associated with exposure to human adenovirus and protozoan pathogens present Class B treated biosolids.”

Research results that enumerate viral organism in biosolids provide inputs to new tools for assessing health risks and for decision making. A Swedish research team headed by Robin Harder published  Including Pathogen Risk in Life Cycle Assessment of Wastewater Management. 1. Estimating the Burden of Disease Associated with Pathogens , followed by Including Pathogen Risk in Life Cycle Assessment of Wastewater Management. Implications for Selecting the Functional Unit. This team conducted an evaluation “based on eight previous QMRA (quantitative microbial risk assessment) studies as well as parameter values taken from the literature. A total pathogen risk (expressed as burden of disease) on the order of 0.279 disability-adjusted life years (DALY) per year of operation was estimated for the model WWTS serving 287,600 persons and for the pathogens and exposure pathways included in this study.”

Yes, a lot of new science and new assessments. This deserves our attention and, what is more, even in the absence of EPA funding, it deserves investment of our money. The pay back might be most keen in providing incentives for companies to evolve treatment technologies and for public agencies to institute best practices. The pay back is also in our pride when we well-serve our ratepayers and communities.  And, best of all, it may remind us Don't Be Stupid.