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Roy M and D Couillard. (1997) Use of municipal sewage sludge for the fertilization of forests - mobility of metals and the risk of surface- and ground-water contamination: a review. Rev. Sci. Eau 10 (4) : 507-525. [article in French]

Orginal title : Mobilité des métaux et risque de contamination des eaux lors de la valorisation sylvicole des boues de station d'épuration municipales au Québec : une revue.

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The presence of metals in municipal sewage sludge is still a major obstacle to their land application. Forest land application of sludge reduces the possibility of metals entering the human food chain. Present knowledge of their long-term behavior in forest soil is however limited. The risk of metals leaching to the aquatic ecosystem situated downstream from treated zone must be evaluated. This paper present a comparison of the risks of water contamination when sludges are applied to forests instead of cropland. The levels of metals in municipal sludge, their form and their mobility in sludge-treated soil are reviewed. Finally, the regulations of the Province of Quebec that have been established to protect forest land are compared to the recommendations of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Although sludge applications to forest land reduce the risk of human foodchain contamination, properties of forest soils (low pH, low cation exchange capacity (CEC), presence of large continuous pores) could represent an increased hazard of metals leaching to aquatic ecosystems. Metal concentrations in sludge vary considerably depending on the source of the sludge. Metals found in sludge are predominantly associated with the solid phase, while soluble and exchangeable forms generally represent less than 10% of the total metals.

Short term studies have revealed that metals tend to accumulate in the upper layers of soil, but few studies have evaluated long-term metal mobility or bioavailability. Many factors can contribute to an increase mobility (pH, oxidation-reduction potential, organic matter decomposition). The risk of aquatic ecosystem contamination by aluminum leached from sludge-treated soils hasn't yet been evaluated. It seems, however, that the risk exists if the soil become more acidic after sludge decomposition.

Limits on the amount of metals allowed in sludge have been fixed by many countries. Nevertheless, given the wide variation in the standards used to regulate the allowable content of metal in sludge or sludge-treated soils, disagreement presently exist among regulatory agencies. For example, the maximum cadmium limit allowed in sludge destined to be used as forest fertilizer in Quebec is 15 mg kg-1, whereas it is 85 mg kg-1 in the United States. Different philosophical views on environmental protection (zero tolerance or tolerance of a certain level of metals in soil), as well as the organism chosen when standards are set, are responsible for this inconsistency.

Before sewage sludge application to forests becomes a common practice, the associated risks of metals leaching to the aquatic ecosystem must be evaluated. Long-term studies should be undertaken in order to establish safe standards for applying sludge in a forest environment. Such additional efforts will enable good quality sludge to be considered as a usable and valuable resource in forestry.


Sewage sludge, forest fertilizer, metal, pollution, water, soil, forest.

Corresponding author

Marie Roy, Centre de recherche et de développement sur les sols et les grandes cultures, Direction Générale de la recherche, Agriculture et Agroalimentaire Canada, 2560 boulevard Hochelaga, Sainte-Foy (Québec) G1V 2J3, CANADA

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Update: 2006-12-19
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