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Wednesday, May 4, 2011

FROM TOILET TO TABLE - Sit down and have a helping of "biosolids."

A little girl runs barefoot down the sun-warmed garden path and pulls up a carrot from the soil that still clings. After a rinse in cold water and a little scrub, it will become her snack, full of vitamins and minerals and possibly a few other things her mother isn’t aware of: traces of heavy metals, pathogens, pharmaceuticals, hormones, flame retardants, solvents, and more.

Welcome to gardening with BIOSOLIDS.

That's a nice name for treated sewage sludge that comes from anything and everything that has been flushed down a toilet, dumped in a sink drain, or run through a garbage disposal, including unimaginably nasty waste from industrial plants, hospitals, slaughterhouses, and more.

Anything and everything. Pause for a moment and think about that.

As the world’s population increases, so does the amount of human, animal, hospital, industrial, and food processing waste. Sewage treatment facilities produce huge quantities of sludge—over 7 million dry tons per year. Somehow, it needs to be dealt with.The Clean Water Act of 1972 meant sewage had to be treated and not just dumped, which was a good thing, but then it started accumulating.

Historically, many methods have been used to get rid of sludge, including incineration (although that has raised concern about airborne pollution), burial in landfills (risking ground water quality), or dumping in the ocean (to enter the food chain and pollute the seas.) Ocean dumping was banned in 1988.

Promoting it as a fertilizer for agriculture was a cheap and easy solution, one you might be part of, convinced that you’re doing the right thing when you take home bags of soils, composts, or fertilizers from your local sewage treatment plant or distributors, to spread on your yard or garden. Or maybe you’ve had a whole truckload delivered. After all, you might think of it as “natural and organic.” And it's true that biosolids do offer nutrients for plant growth, and they can be obtained for little or no money.

Even locally, the choices abound. The City of Tacoma offers TAGRO. Pierce County has SoundGRO and King County pushes GroCo. All those "GROs" make it sound so healthy, and it seems like such a “green” idea. What’s to worry about? We are told time and time again that biosolids are safe. But who has been telling us this?

The endorsement comes from those involved with the sewage and waste water treatment industry, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, even though the EPA’s own website raises concern. In 2009, the EPA collected samples of treated sewage sludge from 74 randomly selected, publicly owned sewage treatment plants in 35 states and compiled the Targeted National Sewage Sludge Survey Report. The results revealed the presence of “four anions (nitrite/nitrate, fluoride, water-extractable phosphorus), 28 metals, four polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, two semi-volatiles, 11 flame retardants, 72 pharmaceuticals, and 25 steroids and hormones.” Some think of "biosolids" as an improvement on the smelly manure that has been used for centuries, but this stuff is nothing like what a cow produced back in 1700.

How the EPA protects (?) us

In response to the Clean Water Amendments, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency created an amendment to their regulations, titled “The Standards for the Use and Disposal of Sewage Sludge,” (Title 40 of the Code of Federal Regulations [CFR], Part 503) effective March 22, 1993. “The Part 503 Rule,” as it is now called, presents criteria for use, testing, storage, and disposal of treated sewage sludge, with the assertions of its relative safety based on assumptions about compliance with these rules. Take a look at Chapter 6 of the EPA’s “Plain English Guide to the EPA Part 503 Biosolids Rule.”

Unfortunately, most citizens don’t bother looking into the matter and just accept what they are told. Extremely effective public relations and marketing campaigns convince the public that using these products is the environmentally responsible and economical choice. Consequently, both commercial farmers and home gardeners are being duped into helping to solve a disposal problem of horrific proportions.

The EPA's FAQ page concerning biosolids, makes some confusing claims. It clearly states that biosolids are applied to land in all 50 states, that "About 50% of all biosolids are being recycled to land. These biosolids are used on less than one percent of the nation's agricultural land."

How does that work? How does 50% of over 7 million dry tons fit onto only 1% of our farm land? And what about the other 50%? Some of it, for sure, is in homeowners' back yards, our parks, school grounds, golf courses, etc.

Proponents of sludge as fertilizer will insist that the treatment makes it safe, and it certainly ends up safer than it was in its raw state. But is that truly safe enough?

Question No. 9 of the FAQ asks, "Are biosolids safe?" Here's the answer, which never does state that biosolids are "safe": The National Academy of Sciences has reviewed current practices, public health concerns and regulator standards, and has concluded that "the use of these materials in the production of crops for human consumption when practiced in accordance with existing federal guidelines and regulations, presents negligible risk to the consumer, to crop production and to the environment."

Again, I would recommend a look at "The Plain English Guide" and ask readers to draw their own conclusions about the likelihood of those complex and burdensome guidelines actually being complied with on a real farm, in real life. Words like "negligible risk" don't feel all that comforting to some of us, especially considering the source.

Information from the Centers for Disease Control

Although sewage has been around for as long as mankind, the lovely name “biosolids” has only been around since 1991. It sounds so much nicer than “sewage sludge.” That’s why it came in the winner out of 250 entries in a contest sponsored by WEF, the Water Environment Federation, a re branding tactic used to help promote acceptance. The WEF adds to their name the subtitle of “the water quality people,” and looking at their website, you can’t tell that this is a lobbying organization representing the sewage treatment industry.

How biosolids are made and classified

Processes used to reduce the number of pathogens in sludge include aerobic and anaerobic digestion by micro-organisms, drying, composting, and heating. But when moisture is removed, what's left is a concentration of the worst it contains. The gold standard is “Class A,” subject to more intensive processing than “Class B,” which can meet less stringent standards to comply with regulations that allow its widespread use in agriculture, in spite of the fact that it admittedly contains pathogens at levels that have been merely “reduced.” If Class B products aren’t safe for home gardens, what makes them safe for commercial agriculture? Whether the produce you eat comes from your backyard or the store, it's still the produce you eat.

(For details on these “A” and “B” classifications and the levels of pathogens, metals and other pollutants that are allowed, see Chapter 5 of the “EPA Plain English Guide to the Part 503 Biosolids Rule.”)

Theoretically, use of Class B biosolids are to be used with governmental supervision and enforcement, in conjunction with permits, careful considerations of hazards to nearby bodies of water and how it might become airborne, and with regular monitoring by those using and distributing it. Supposedly, pathogens in Class A biosolids exist only at minute levels, making it legal to include them in packaged soils and compost for use in homeowners’ yards and gardens. But how low, is low enough? And what about other components that come with the package?

Read this excellent and shocking article from a series articles published by Grist: “Regulating Biosolids.” It also explains the differences between Class A and Class B.

Even if you believe that the treatment process keeps you safe from pathogens, there is still much more to be concerned about, and there always has been, as reference to the allowed levels of pollutants in Chapter 5 clearly indicates. You might be surprised to know what ends up in human sewage and waste water.

A mess too big for toilet paper

Organizations that are little more than fronts for the biosolid industry, come across as stewards of the environment, concerned about clean water and responsible agricultural practices. Their feel-good approach assures consumers of safety. But many people have learned the hard way that these products are not safe. ( See also, this news story from Fox News about contaminated milk and a farmer in Georgia whose land was polluted and who lost dozens of cows. Learn more about the difficulty of destroying prions, the special proteins whose misshapen forms are thought to cause Mad Cow Disease on this report on

Look at and this from the N.Y. Times.

Even when you buy popular bagged soil products labeled “organic,” you might not really know what you’re getting. ("I Never Promised You an Organic Garden.) Even while certain consumers knowingly and willingly use biosolids contained in cheap or free soils and fertilizers that come from waste treatment facilities, it’s highly disturbing to realize that other products in retail outlets, thought to be safe, have been purported to contain sludge without you knowing it, when the label lists "compost" as an ingredient.

Investigative reporting on a school gardening program in Los Angeles has raised controversy as to whether or not a product said to contain sewage sludge was actually used in what was perceived as an "organic" garden, since it appeared in a posed photo related to the program. Please read this article: Sewage Sludge, Celebrities and School Gardens.

Watch this video decide for yourself what impression you get from the use of the  word "organic" by a spokesperson for Kellogg Garden Products Company, in reference to their well-publicized donations to the L.A. school garden program.

If you are convinced that biosolids should never be used in conjunction with growing food, but you might still think they don’t seem so bad if applied only to lawns, think again. What if you buy a home with a yard that is contaminated and then decide to dig into part of it to plant a vegetable garden? You would have no idea that you were about to contaminate your own food. In addition, children can be exposed to it during outdoor play and it can be tracked into your home.

The sludge disposal problem affects the entire planet. Third World countries use it to increase the fertility of depleted farmlands and improve crop yields. But at what price? It is commonly spread or sprayed in conjunction with forestry for more profitable yields. Without your consent, it ends up on lawns and playgrounds, perhaps in your town.

The point is that we just don’t know enough about the long-term consequences of using biosolids. The Center for Media and Democracy’s Food Rights Network is involved in the fight, trying to educate the public about the dangers and deceptive practices carried out under the guise of recycling. But many other groups and individuals have sounded the alarm for years and have used startling methods to gain attention. (See “Sludge Happens” and the CBS news story, “Shockingly, Toxic Waste Candy Bars Deemed Unsafe" and the recent article, "Food Sunday: I Dare You, Put Sludge in Your Mouth.")

For those nervous about a technology with too much potential for unwanted consequences, the choices of what to do about it may seem depressingly limited in the face of the volume of biosolids burdening the planet. If we are ever going to stop this nightmare it will require educating the public, speaking up and speaking loudly, in other words, activism. It’s a problem the whole world shares. One small-scale movement (no pun intended) to reduce the need for sewage treatment plants promotes the use of composting toilets.

That's one thing you can do. Here are more ideas:

• Educate yourself. Follow the links provided in this article and find links to many other articles in the press through the toxic sludge information center on a website called SourceWatch.
• Buy only organic produce.
• Find out where sludge is being used in your community.
• Question, question, question. Don't accept everything you are told as being the truth.
• Shop for ORGANIC gardening products and supplies only at INDEPENDENTLY OWNED GARDEN CENTERS, which is where you will have the best chance of finding high quality, truly organic and healthful soils and fertilizers. Read labels and ask questions.

And please, for your own safety and the safety of your children, pets, wildlife, future owners of your home, and the planet Earth, ban biosolids from your yard and garden.

And don't forget to wash your hands before you eat.

NOTE: This blog post provides links to information that is publicly available through the Internet on government, mainstream media, and personal web sites, and the author is not responsible for the accuracy of such information.

Note: I am adding this live link to the pdf. shared by Helane Shields in her comment below, which will lead you to even  MORE scientific information and articles. Thank you, Helane.

Copyright 2011 Candace J. Brown


Michael Steinman said...

Up to our necks in shit, alas, alas. Thanks (I suppose) for the photograph at top -- it will be hard to forget that table setting. But it is sometimes only by making people upset that it is possible to make them change. Watch out for those carrots!

hshields said...

Thank you for the opportunity to comment on the use of Kellogg's Class A sewage sludge "biosolids" compost on LA school childrens' vegetable gardens.

Use of sludge compost on vegetable gardens is particularly risky because the plants take up sludge pollutants:

Here is the link to the EPA's most recent report identifying the pollutants it found in sludge biosolids: Only the 9 toxic metals in bold text are regulated. The rest of the chemicals listed are untested, unmonitored and unregulated.

Respectfully submitted, Helane Shields, Alton, NH