Estimating human toxicity potential of land application of sewage sludge: the effect of modelling choices
Journal article, 2017

Purpose: Many municipalities are facing increasing pressure to adapt solid waste and wastewater management infrastructures in order to better close nutrient cycles. The focus of this study is on the estimation of the human toxicity potential associated with chemical contaminants released upon the application of sewage sludge to agricultural land. More specifically, this study investigated the effect of modelling choices regarding fate and exposure assessment. Methods: Monitoring data were collected for contaminants present in the sewage sludge from the wastewater treatment plant in Gothenburg and from other municipal wastewater treatment plants in Sweden. Based on these monitoring data, an overall burden of disease was estimated using characterisation factors taken from the USEtox models (versions 1.01 and 2.0). For the exposure through vegetables, an alternative life cycle impact assessment (LCIA) model was developed. The intake fractions thus obtained were used in combination with human health effect factors taken from the USEtox 2.0 database. The model results were compared with the USEtox models, and whether these two versions of the USEtox model provide significantly different results was also examined. The potential relevance of accidental ingestion of sludge was also considered. Results and discussion: The different LCIA models provided burden of disease estimates that differed from one another for individual contaminants (up to five orders of magnitude). The aggregated burdens of disease (i.e. sum for all contaminants considered in this study) estimated through different model variants, however, were of the same order of magnitude. For both metals and organic contaminants, only a small set of contaminants was found to make significant contributions to the aggregate burden of disease. However, it is uncertain whether the 15 metals and 106 organic contaminants covered by this study are those of greatest health significance of all contaminants potentially present in sewage sludge. Conclusions and recommendations: The results of this study indicate that the technical information provided by the various approaches to modelling human toxicity in life cycle assessment (LCA) in the context of land application of sewage sludge management is consistent on the whole. However, given the uncertainties associated with the assessment of human toxicity in LCA, it is important to also contemplate the extent to which LCA in general is capable of informing the sewage sludge debate when it comes to human toxicity and possibly also other indicators. Future research could focus on identifying which types of questions of interest in the context of sewage management can be answered by LCA and which cannot.

Chemical risks






Robin Harder

Chemical Environmental Science

Gregory Peters

Chemical Environmental Science

Magdalena Svanström

Chemical Environmental Science

Stuart Khan

University of New South Wales (UNSW)

Sverker Molander

Chalmers, Energy and Environment, Environmental Systems Analysis

International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment

0948-3349 (ISSN)

Vol. 22 5 731-743

Driving Forces

Sustainable development

Subject Categories

Environmental Sciences



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