You say biosolids, I say sewage sludge

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WARNING! Sewage sludge is toxic. Food should not be grown in "biosolids." Join the Food Rights Network.

Biosolids is the Orwellian term chosen via a sewage industry PR contest as the preferred euphemism for toxic sewage sludge.


This article was first published as "Let Them Eat Sludge"in PR Watch, Volume 2, No. 3, 3rd Quarter 1995. It original article was authored by John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton and is used here with permission. As with all SourceWatch articles, feel free to edit and revise.

You say biosolids, I say sewage sludge

If the "Water Environment Federation" has its way, you'll be routinely eating fruits and vegetables fertilized with sewage sludge containing heavy metals, dangerous viruses, dioxins, PCBs, pesticides and hundreds of other toxic chemicals.

The WEF, whose pleasant-sounding name conceals its true identity as the main lobby association for U.S. sewage treatment plants, is working closely with the Environmental Protection Agency to persuade farmers and food processors that sewage sludge is a "beneficial fertilizer."

In the United States, sewage plants produce over 10 million tons of sludge per year, creating a massive waste disposal problem. Spreading sludge on farm fields happens to be the cheapest disposal method available, and WEF and the EPA claim that it is also the most environmentally sound method--that it "recycles" sewage waste by converting it into a valuable resource.

As part of this effort to sell sludge to the public, WEF has even coined a new name for the stuff. "It's not toxic, and we're launching a campaign to get people to stop calling it sludge. We call it 'biosolids,' " says WEF Director of Information Nancy Blatt.

One measure of the success of the WEF's PR campaign is that major food companies and associations are reversing their long-standing opposition to sewage sludge. Until recently, the National Food Processors Association--the main trade/lobby group representing the food industry, with members such as Del Monte, Heinz and Nestlé--strongly opposed accepting and selling sludge-grown fruits and vegetables.

In 1992 the tomato and ketchup conglomerate Heinz responded to a consumer inquiry by writing, "Heinz Company feels the risk of utilizing municipal sludge, which is known to be high in heavy metals such as cadmium and lead, is not a health risk which we need to take. . . . It should be noted that once the lead levels are present in the soil they stay there for an indefinite period of time. . . . We have at times dropped suppliers who have used the municipal sludge on their crop land."

In 1995, however, a Heinz representative said they were reconsidering their policy. Other companies are following suit. Chris Meyers, a PR representative for the huge Del Monte company, explained that his company's "long-standing position . . . to avoid using raw agricultural products grown on soils treated with municipal sludge" was likely to change. "The EPA has asked the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to conduct an extensive study of the outstanding safety issues. Del Monte is an active supporter of this study, which we hope will facilitate sludge use in the future." The NAS report is due out by the end of 1995.

Once "biosolids" are accepted as crop fertilizer, the powerful National Food Processors Association lobby will "strongly oppose" any labeling of food grown on sludge land. According to NFPA representative Rick Jarman, consumers don't need to know whether their food has been grown in sludge.

Currently, "certified organic" farmers are prohibited from using sludge on their crops, but the sludge industry is pushing for acceptance by organic farming organizations, and this will be a battleground for industry PR in the future. The amount of farm acreage dedicated to organic farming is currently very small. However, said Brian Baker of California Certified Organic Farmers, "imagine what great PR it would be for the sewage sludge promoters to say that sludge is so clean it can even be certified organic--what a way to 'greenwash' sewage sludge!"

Sludge Makeover

WEF's "National Biosolids Public Acceptance Campaign" is the brainchild of Powell Tate, a blue-chip Washington-based PR/lobby firm that specializes in public relations around controversial high-tech, safety and health issues, with clients from the tobacco, pharmaceutical, electronics and airlines industries. Jody Powell was President Jimmy Carter's press secretary and confidant. Sheila Tate similarly served Vice-President George Bush and First Lady Nancy Reagan. Tate is also the chairperson of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

PR Watch has requested that the WEF and EPA provide copies of its strategy documents, memos, opinion surveys and other materials from Powell Tate. Legally we are entitled to these documents, since both agencies receive taxpayer funding. Their refusal to voluntarily produce them forced us to file a Freedom of Information Act request with the federal government. EPA is currently stalling, and we are now examining legal action to force public disclosure of the sludge PR documents.

Our investigation into the PR campaign for "beneficial use" of sewage sludge revealed a murky tangle of corporate and government bureaucracies, conflicts of interest, and a coverup of massive hazards to the environment and human health. The trail began with the WEF and led finally to Hugh Kaufman, the legendary whistleblower at the hazardous site control division of the Environmental Protection Agency.

In the 1980s, Kaufman refused to remain silent about the collaboration between EPA officials and leaders of the industries they were supposed to regulate. His courageous testimony exposed the agency's failure to deal with mounting chemical wastes and brought down Anne Burford, President Reagan's EPA administrator.

Today, Kaufman is attempting to raise a similar alarm about the so-called "beneficial use" of sewage sludge, a boondoggle he refers to as "sludge-gate . . . the mother lode of toxic waste."

"Beneficial use" is the industry euphemism for the practice of spreading sludge on farm fields. Even before the current push, sludge has been applied to soil for decades. Milwaukee sewage has been dried and sold nationally for almost 70 years as "Milorganite," a lawn and garden fertilizer. In recent years, other cities have followed Milwaukee's example, offering varieties such as "Nu-Earth" from Chicago, "Nitrohumus" from Los Angeles, and "Hou-actinite" from Houston.

Until recently, Milorganite and other commercially-marketed sludge products carried labels warning that they should not be applied on food-producing soil. But most consumers and journalists are unaware that tens of thousands of acres, from Midwest dairy land to Florida citrus groves and California fruit orchards, are already routinely "fertilized" with byproducts of industrial and human sewage. In theory, this approach harkens back to the time-honored natural system of composting. Of course, the organic farmers of previous centuries didn't have to worry that their "night soil" contained a synergistic soup of dioxins, asbestos, DDT and lead that could contaminate themselves, their groundwater, and their food.

"I am appalled at what I would term the 'total disregard for human health' and the fact that the Environmental Protection Agency is actively promoting and is, in fact, lulling communities throughout the United States into initiating programs for the composting of sewage sludge," said Melvin Kramer, an infectious disease epidemiologist who has been researching the issue since the late 1970s. He says the EPA's plan for sludge disposal poses "a significant health hazard to the population in general, but especially to the elderly, children, and the infirm, both in terms of nuisances as exemplified by excessive putrid odors and minor allergic reactions . . . to life-threatening diseases."

Some environmental activists with Greenpeace and the Citizens Clearinghouse on Hazardous Waste have warned about the dangers of sludge, but some groups--notably the Environmental Defense Fund and the Natural Resources Defense Council--have bought into the argument that sludge farming is the least offensive way to deal with the problem of waste disposal. Sarah Clark, formerly of the EDF, claims that sludge farming "is the best means of returning to the soil nutrients and organic matter that were originally removed. It is recycling a resource just as recycling newspapers or bottles is. If the right safeguards are taken, it can be environmentally protective and even beneficial."

Unfortunately, "the right safeguards" are not being taken. Joseph Zinobile, a risk management consultant with Pennsylvania's Waste Risk Education Fund, agrees that "human waste residue can be applied to land in a safe manner." The problem, he says, is that "it is often not done safely at this time. The primary reason that it is not always done safely at this time is a nearly complete subjugation of safety concerns by the US EPA in favor of their concern over solving their 'disposal dilemma.' "

Dr. Stanford Tackett, a chemist and expert on lead contamination, became alarmed about sludge on the basis of its lead content alone. "The use of sewage sludge as a fertilizer poses a more significant lead threat to the land than did the use of leaded gasoline," he says. "All sewage sludges contain elevated concentrations of lead due to the nature of the treatment process. . . . Lead is a highly toxic and cumulative poison that can cause severe mental retardation or death. It interferes with the blood-forming process, vitamin D metabolism, kidney function, and the neurological process. From the standpoint of lead alone, sludge is 'safe' only if you are willing to accept a lowered IQ for the young children living in the sludge area. And what about the other toxins?"

Tackett is appalled "that the government would take the citizens' money and use it in such an odious way. The land spreading program for sewage sludge is a scam of enormous proportions, driven mainly by money," he charges. "In truth, only one to three percent of the sludge is useful to plants. The other 97 to 99 percent is contaminated waste that should not be spread where people live. . . . Land spreading of sewage sludge is not a true 'disposal' method, but rather serves only to transfer the pollutants in the sludge from the treatment plant to the soil, air and ground water of the disposal site."

One Hand Washes the Other

Tackett also condemns the "selective science" and "manipulation of research money" used to rationalize sludge farming. "Millions of dollars have been made available through EPA and other federal, state and local agencies, for 'beneficial use' research. Toxicologists, public health scientists and medical researchers have not had a similar money pot available to study the potential dangers and adverse health effects of sewage sludge. . . . The scientists selected by the EPA to serve on sludge advisory committees are the 'beneficial use' researchers, and the only research reports they deem acceptable for the purpose of adopting new sludge spreading regulations are from the 'beneficial use' studies. . . . The claims now made for 'sludge safety' sound eerily like the earlier claims that 'DDT is perfectly safe' and 'asbestos is a miracle fiber that poses no danger at all."

In fact, the researchers, advocates, regulators and practitioners of sludge farming are a closely interwoven group. Dr. Alan Rubin, for example, served as chief of the EPA's sludge management branch where he oversaw the development of new regulations for land farming of sludge fertilizer. In 1994 the EPA loaned Rubin to the Water Environment Federation, while continuing to pay half of his salary. Now Rubin the regulator is a full time cheerleader for "biosolids."

Dr. Terry Logan, a professor of soil chemistry at Ohio State University, is another sludge advocate who has conflicting roles and interests. He co-chairs the US EPA Peer Review Committee, a group described by the EPA as "the best scientific talent and data assembled" to help develop recent federal regulations that eased restrictions on sludge farming. Logan also receives $2,400 per month as a paid consultant and board member of the N-Viro International Corporation, which has developed a patented process for converting sludge into fertilizer by mixing it with dust from concrete kilns and heat-drying it to kill germs. At the recommendation of Logan's committee, the EPA promulgated a modification of its "Part 503" regulations to increase the levels of allowable heavy metals in sludge fertilizer. At the same time that Logan was involved in developing the new regulations, he held stock options in N-Viro whose value could have dropped substantially if he had recommended stricter requirements.

Despite its many customers, N-Viro is in shaky financial condition. Since 1993, the value of its stock has plummeted from $9.50 to $1.50 a share. One of its major problems has been the slow rate of acceptance of land farming of sludge. The company is banking on sludge regulator/promoter Alan Rubin to help overcome political and PR obstacles so the company and industry can flourish. In 1994, Dr. Logan was named "man of the year" by the EPA, and N-Viro, along with the US Composting Council and the Rodale Institute, received a $300,000 grant from the US Congress to help promote its product.

In 1992, former EPA official William Sanjour testified before the Georgia State Senate on the "close working relationships formed with government officials who are lured by the huge profits made by the waste management industry. . . . The power of this industry to influence government actions is further enhanced by the ease with which government regulatory officials are hired by the industry. Over thirty state and federal officials have gone over to the waste management industry in the southeast region. . . . This practice extends even to the highest levels of government. William Ruckelshaus, a former Administrator of EPA and a close advisor to President Bush, is CEO of the second largest waste management company in America. . . . With this kind of influence and power, trying to have a meaningful hazardous waste reduction program . . . is, frankly, like trying to have a meaningful egg laying program after you've let the fox into the chicken coop."

Victimless Grime?

Assessing the health threat from the human disease pathogens inhabiting sewage sludge defies the capabilities of current science. In 1993, a team of researchers at the University of Arizona published a study which found that "significant numbers" of dangerous human disease organisms infect even treated sewage sludge. "Thus, no assessment of the risks associated with the land application of sewage sludge can ever be considered to be complete when dealing with microorganisms."

The viruses, bacteria, protozoa, fungi and intestinal worms present in sewage and sludge is mindboggling. Many of the pathogens cause diseases that sicken, cripple and kill humans including salmonella, shigella, campylobacter, e-coli, enteroviruses (which cause paralysis, meningitis, fever, respiratory illness, diarrhea, encephalitis), giardia, cryptosporidium, roundworm, hookworm, and tapeworm. Sludge pathogens can move through many environmental pathways --direct contact with sludge, evaporation and inhalation, contaminated groundwater, contamination of rodents burrowing in sludge, and uptake through the roots of crops.

In Islip, New York, sludge was the evident cause of the disease that killed 25-year-old Harry Dobin, who ran a coffee truck at a Long Island Railroad station 1000 feet away from a sludge composting site. In July 1991 Dobin began suffering health problems. Doctors treated him unsuccessfully for asthma, arthritis, Lyme disease, kidney disorder and bronchitis. Finally in January 1992 when he could no longer breathe, they performed a lung biopsy and discovered Aspergillus fumigatus, a common byproduct of sludge composting. By the time the disease was correctly diagnosed, it was unstoppable, spreading to his spine, his legs, and finally his heart, leading to his death on September 23, 1992. Other residents of Islip complained of chronic coughing, nausea and other reactions. A study by the state Department of Health found that neighborhoods downwind of the composting plant had four times the average background level of Aspergillus. State officials concluded that "the study did not find that the higher concentration of mold spores increased health problems . . . [but] such a connection might, in fact, be present . . . further study was needed to come to a definitive conclusion."

Outside Sparta, Missouri, a tiny rural town whose sewage plant began operations in the late 1980s, dairy farmer Ed Rollers began having problems with his cows in 1990. They were falling sick and dying, and no veterinarian or university scientists could tell him why. The death and disease continued until late 1993 when the farm declared bankruptcy. Someone suggested to Rollers that his cows could be victims of sludge which was dumped on a nearby field in 1989-1991, and suggested he read journalist Ed Haag's articles on the topic which had recently appeared in two farm magazines.

Eventually Rollers initiated scientific soil tests. "We found lots of heavy metal contaminants. The field where the sludge was dumped ran into our fields." They tested a dead cow and found "lead, cadmium, fluoride in the liver, kidneys, bones and teeth." Rollers hired an attorney. His situation is especially difficult because the landowner who accepted the sludge is a public official in Sparta, and sits on the board of Rollers' bank. As of 1995, the Rollers case was still pending, and Ed's father was experiencing health problems suspected to result from his exposure to sludge. "I can't believe what's happening," Rollers said. "There are very few places to turn. . . . I don't want a government agency to cover this up."

In Lynden, Washington, dairy farmers Linda and Raymond Zander began to lose cows a year after sludge was spread on an adjoining farm. "We noticed . . . lameness and other malfunctions," said Linda Zander. Tests found heavy metals in soils at the sludge disposal site and in water from two neighborhood wells that serve several families. Raymond Zander was diagnosed with nickel poisoning, and several family members showed signs of neurological damage which they believe is linked to heavy metal poisoning including zinc, copper, lead and manganese. Sixteen neighboring families have experienced health problems ranging from flu symptoms to cancer. Since then Zander says she has heard similar stories of sickness and death from more than 100 farmers near sludge sites throughout the United States.

Sludge is often marketed to farmers as "free fertilizer," but environmental consultant Susan Cook, who tested the Zanders' water supply, warned that "farmers may be happy initially but the problems don't show up overnight. It was nearly two years before Ray and Linda realized what was happening."

In fact, says toxicology professor Karl Schurr of the University of Minnesota, "some of the same chemicals found in sewage sludge were also employed by Cesare Borgia and his sister Lucrezia Borgia in Italy during the 1400s to very slowly poison their opponents."

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