Sunday, March 14, 2010

"The Entire Nation Regularly Consumes Foods Grown On Fields Fertilized With Sludge" - Jill Richardson

As Barry Estabrook wrote about here:
Sludge Fest: Center For Food Safety Vs. San Francisco. It’s A Battle That May Be Coming Soon To A City Near You, Politics of the Plate, November 2009

And Jill Richardson wrote about here:
Outrage in San Francisco: City Gives Residents 'Organic' Compost Containing Toxic Sewage Sludge, AlterNet, March 2010

Sludge, the end product of the treatment process for human waste, hospital waste, industrial waste and stormwater, is being spread on agricultural land as fertilizer to the possible detriment of our health. In this case, and in others, it is being sold as "organic." But, as Richardson writes:
"SFPUC [San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, who is giving the sludge away free to homeowners, community and school gardens] also defended its usage of the word "organic," claiming its use of the term "referred to the scientific definition of organic matter as in containing significant amounts of organic carbon" and never meant that the compost was certified organic by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Use of the word "organic" was particularly misleading because the USDA's organic standards strictly forbid the application of any sewage sludge on land used to grow organic crops."
Whether you call it "sludge" or "organic biosolids compost", "hazardous waste" (which Richardson says the EPA called sludge prior to 1992) or "fertilizer", it still, according to the Center for Food Safety, contains "toxic chemicals and hazardous materials." Says Estabrook:
"According to a report released this year by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), sludge has been found to contain heavy metals, pharmaceuticals, PCBs, flame retardants, and endocrine disruptors -- pretty much anything that humans living and working in a large metropolitan area flush down their toilets or pour down their drains."
And those toxins are finding their way into our food (as we saw with E. coli in my previous post). Writes Richardson:
"Thallium, a rat poison toxic to humans even in small doses, went from the sludge, to the crops, to the cows, all the way to milk on grocery store shelves. ... In the EPA's recent tests, 80 out of 84 samples of sewage sludge tested positive for thallium."

It's time to find another use for sewage sludge. Or at least label our food as being grown in sludge:

H.R. 185: Sewage Sludge in Food Production Consumer Notification Act, 111th Congress
"To amend the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act and the egg, meat, and poultry inspection laws to ensure that consumers receive notification regarding food products produced from crops, livestock, or poultry raised on land on which sewage sludge was applied."


Dr. Mel said...

I knew that sludge was forbidden under the recent organic guidelines, and it's shocking (but not really surprising) that corporations/groups are finding ways around that. And the problem is, most people JUST DON'T KNOW!!! They don't bother (or don't have time) to read up on what's actually happening, so they end up believing "industrial organic" is just dandy. Good post--thanks!

This is one of the arguments for further development of community gardens, CSAs, home gardens, etc. B/c w/ those, you know what you're getting in terms of water, soil, amendments etc. At least, you know if you bother to ask or have it tested! Our farm is pretty pristine, and I feel very fortunate for that. Not everyone has that, of course, but those who care can go to farmers' markets and grill the farmers on their practices and so forth. Or turn a vacant lot into a community garden--that's being done here in Chester by one of the Franciscan sisters, so that people w/ no ready access to stores selling fresh produce can grow it themselves--and that's happening in cities all over the country!

Bix said...

I think it's great that we have the ability to change things, like the Food Safety legislation in Congress right now. We can write our Senators and Reps about this. I've been reading about other countries. It's very difficult in some Asian countries to enact change from the bottom up. And we now have sites like and, thanks to recent changes in government, that increase transparency and accountability.

Leonard said...

The more and more I read your blog, the less I want to eat! I'm skinny enough! Bix, more positive posts about food...there has to be some, right? ;) peace

Bix said...

No worries, Leonard. Have some potato latkes!

Leonard said...

MMMMM...potato latkes, I think I'll have hashbrowns for breakfast!! ;) peace

Ben P. DaSalt said...

Theoretically, using human manure is fine. Even in basic practice, there isn’t any harm and it’s a good use of an ever renewable resource.

Feces whether from livestock or people is feces. There’s likely more nutrients in human manure since our diets are more varied, and it’s probably better to use the feces our populations generate than to flush it en masse into oceans. Composting toilets make great fertilizer; a person can handle the resulting manure with little safety concern.

Industrially treated Class A composted biosolids have a very low (non-existent) pathogen risk.
In the e.coli contamination warnings we’re heard about over the years, I’ve never heard of a case link back to biosolids (unless it conveniently doesn’t get much coverage). It’s contamination from livestock manure that we hear about, my guess is, because it’s not treated thoroughly, or at all, and there are problems of manure lagoon runoffs and ground water contamination from neighboring farms.

The current practice of biosolids as its done isn’t ideal. There are lots of other things besides human waste, like chemicals and heavy metals and such, that get’s flushed down toilets and ends up down storm drains, and this is reason for concern. There still is a pathogen risk from cutting corners (being cheap) in processing as well. There’s also concern of pharmaceuticals, but we know that most (~70%) of antibiotics produced, goes to livestock, so it’s not like livestock manure is pristine in this regard and at least humans aren’t confined standing around in their own feces breeding resistant bacteria.

As for medical waste, if its remains of body parts and gore, while disgusting sounding, grinding it up and applying it to soil is reasonable, this is done with livestock blood and bone meal already. It’s just hard to sift through what is meant by "medical waste," sounds like it’s full of hypodermic needles and leftover bags of chemotherapy drugs or something.

An idea for better human manure collection practice would be for portable potty companies to send their waste directly to processing. Not much else gets into those toilets besides feces and (that really thin) toilet paper. Specific collection pathways could control manure quality a little better.

What is puzzling is that we already have too much livestock feces to process and deal with, so I’m not sure why we are processing sewer sludge to spread on land. Perhaps the sludge is funneled to processing plants via plumbing, so once processed is a one way trip to farms? With CAFO manure lagoons the waste needs to be collected, driven to processing plants, then back to farms?

I don’t know, I’m sort of just thinking out loud now. Point is that we shouldn’t dismiss the idea of using human refuse as fertilizer, but yeah, the devil is in the details.

Bix said...

I feel bad for the people who live in the Marston farm community in Maryland. Waste from turkey and chicken slaughterhouses, old irradiated McCormick spices, and refuse from water treatment plants is being spread on local land creating noxious odors.

Mr. Snader, owner of Enviro-Organic Technologies, gets to call this soil treatment "organic." It makes me wonder if the food being grown with it is also called "organic." Maybe not. I don't think it matters though since the USDA says only about 1% of farmland is organic.

I just read Wikipedia's entry for "biosolids." From a 2002 report regarding the EPA sludge program:

"The EPA cannot assure the public that current land application practices are protective of human health and the environment."


"The report also documented that there had been an almost 100% reduction in EPA enforcement resources since the earlier assessment."

100% Does that mean that the EPA has almost 0% enforcement of what gets spread on agricultural land? Gives me the willies!

Dr. Mel said...

This comment doesn't belong here, but just saw this in NYT: Bixi Bixia Sauce! Sounds like you should get some!

Bix said...

omg, that sauce has my name on it - literally and figuratively. That's so weird. Even the Basque part.

Sewage Treatment Plant said...

What about the dangers of Prion contamination??

The waste industry is promoting the landspreading of sewage sludge in the UK. However US research has highlighted the fact that it may contain infectious human and animal prions. This puts humans, livestock and wildlife at risk of infection.

Prion researchers at the University of Wisconsin were given a $100,000 Environmental Protection Agency grant and a $5 million Dept. of Defence grant to research the problem. They have found that Prions can survive for over 3 years in soils.

Prion diseases include Altzheimers and BSE (Mad Cow Disease) and Prion diseases are always fatal, resulting in TSE's (Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathies) Infectious prions have been found in human and animal muscle and organs, saliva, blood, as well as urine and feces (obviously found in raw sewage).

Prions cannot be destroyed by any sewage treatment process, in fact, they are made more concentrated in the sewage sludge.

Quotes from Dr. Joel Pedersen, Univ. of Wisconsin, on his prion research:

"Our results suggest that if prions were to enter municipal waste water treatment systems, most of the agent would partition to activated sludge solids, survive mesophilic anaerobic digestion, and be present in treated biosolids. Land application of biosolids containing prions could represent a route for their unintentional introduction into the environment. Our results argue for excluding inputs of prions to municipal wastewater treatment."

But how could that be achieved? How do you stop someone with Altzheimer's using the toilet?

You can stop it being spread on land though!

Back in 1980 I was an animal nutritionist and responsible for formulating cattle feeds for a Yorkshire Feed Compounder. I stopped using meat by products in the formulations because I didn't think it was right to have to flavourise and aromatise ingredients that the animal would not naturally eat. I was the laughing stock of the industry, but then BSE occurred and no-one was laughing anymore.

It is time we stooped spreading sewage sludge on land to prevent another possible environmental disaster.

Bix said...

To the person that wrote this last comment,

I think these things too. And I feel overwhelmed in my ability to help change things. Tomorrow many Americans will vote. And many Americans will vote, not to stop the spread of sewage sludge, but in fact to encourage the spread of sewage sludge on agricultural land ... since this is good for business. They will vote to weaken the EPA even more (although how much more can you get?)

What I don't understand is why people who vote to weaken the EPA and reduce environmental regulation complain about the spread of sewage sludge and "the EPA not doing their job."