On-farm assessment of biosolids effects on soil and crop tissue quality

Amy L. Shober, Richard C. Stehouwer, Kirsten E. Macneal

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52 Scopus citations


Agronomic use of biosolids as a fertilizer material remains controversial in part due to public concerns regarding the potential pollution of soils, crop tissue, and ground water by excess nutrients and trace elements in biosolids. This study was designed to assess the effects of long-term commercial-scale application of biosolids on soils and crop tissue sampled from 18 production farms throughout Pennsylvania. Biosolids application rates ranged from 5 to 159 Mg ha-1 on a dry weight basis. Soil cores and crop tissue samples from corn (Zea mays L.), soybean (Glycine spp.), alfalfa (Medicago sativa L.), orchardgrass (Dactylis spp.) hay, and/or sorghum [Sorghum bicolor (L.) Moench] were collected for three years from georeferenced locations at each farm. Samples were tested for nutrients, trace elements, and other variables. Biosolids-treated fields had more post-growing season soil NO3 and Ca and less soil K than control fields and there was some evidence that soil P concentrations were higher in treated fields. The soil concentrations of Cu, Cr, Hg, Mo, Mn, Pb, and Zn were higher in biosolids-treated fields than in control fields; however, differences were 0.06 of the USEPA Part 503 cumulative pollutant loading rates (CPLRs). There were no differences in the concentrations of measured nutrients or trace elements in the crop tissue grown on treated or control fields at any time during the study. Commercial-scale biosolids application resulted in soil trace element increases that were in line with expected increases based on estimated trace element loading. Excess NO3 and apparent P buildup indicates a need to reassess biosolids nutrient management practices.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1873-1880
Number of pages8
JournalJournal of Environmental Quality
Issue number5
StatePublished - 2003

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Environmental Engineering
  • Water Science and Technology
  • Waste Management and Disposal
  • Pollution
  • Management, Monitoring, Policy and Law


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