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Story at-a-glance -

  • Sewage sludge used for fertilizer may contain a cocktail of pharmaceutical drugs; when the sludge is then applied to a farm field as fertilizer, the plants get exposed to pharmaceuticals as well
  • Even with low-level exposure, drugs in sewage sludge interfered with plant hormones that support defenses against predators and diseases
  • There’s no way to know whether you’re purchasing biosolids in fertilizer or compost for your backyard, as companies are not required to disclose when they’re being used

Are Your Vegetables on Drugs?

November 04, 2015 | 31,612 views

By Dr. Mercola

Sewage sludge, or "biosolids" – as they're referred to with a PR spin – are a type of fertilizer that began being "recycled" into food crops when, ironically, it was realized that dumping them into rivers, lakes, and bays was an environmental disaster.

This sludge is what's leftover after sewage is treated and processed. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) states that about 50 percent of all biosolids are recycled to land and explains:1

"Biosolids are treated sewage sludge… Thirty years ago, thousands of American cities dumped their raw sewage directly into the nation's rivers, lakes, and bays.

Through regulation of this dumping, local governments [are] now required to treat wastewater and to make the decision whether to recycle biosolids as fertilizer, incinerate it, or bury it in a landfill."

By applying biosolids to agricultural crops, gardens, parks, and more, the need for chemical fertilizers is reduced, as is the amount of waste being sent to landfills, which makes it seem as though biosolids are an environmentally friendly, even natural, product.

And the truth is, sewage sludge could be a great system for recycling nitrogen and phosphorus back into the soil by using it as fertilizer.

The problem is the sludge approved for use in fertilizer also contains industrial waste, which is loaded with toxins and heavy metals, pharmaceuticals, and other chemicals that may be harmful to human health and the environment.

So while your first thought may be the "yuck factor" of human waste being used to fertilize your food, that is only the tip of the iceberg. Every time a paintbrush gets rinsed, an old bottle of medication flushed, or solvents are hosed off a factory floor, it ends up in the sewage system… and now potentially on your food.

Pharmaceuticals in Sewage Sludge May Be Damaging Crops

Sewage sludge used for fertilizer may contain a cocktail of pharmaceutical drugs. It's no secret that many Americans take medications, and these drugs are excreted in their waste and find their way into wastewater treatment plants, which typically don't adequately remove such drugs.

When the sludge is then applied to a farm field as fertilizer, the plants get exposed to pharmaceuticals as well.

A new study from researchers at the University of York in the United Kingdom revealed the plants may be suffering as a result, even when exposed to drugs at the low concentrations that might be found in the environment.2

The team analyzed damage caused by two common drugs – a seizure medication called carbamazepine and a high blood pressure med called verapamil – to zucchini plants.

Even with low-level exposure, the drugs interfered with plant hormones that support the zucchini's defenses against predators and diseases. As reported by Civil Eats:3

"'At some higher concentrations, the drugged-up zucchinis' roots were stunted and their leaves developed burnt edges and white spots. 'We thought the discoloration meant that the plants were suffering from a nutrient deficiency,' says [study author Laura] Carter.

But instead they found that the damaged plants had higher levels of some essential nutrients such as potassium, compared to control plants that were not exposed to any drugs. More essential nutrients can be good thing, but if the levels become too high they poison the plant, says Carter.

The drugs also damaged the zucchini's alchemic ability to make its own energy from sunlight, the process known as photosynthesis. At the higher drug concentrations, the research team saw drops in the leaves' levels of chlorophyll a, the substance that makes plant leaves green.

'This suggests a reduction in the photosynthetic ability of the plant,' says Carter. Less photosynthesis means less energy for the plant to grow an edible zucchini."

Caution Urged for the Large-Scale Use of Biosolids

Biosolids are already being used on a large scale, for instance in forestry projects and on local farms. Yet experts such as Dr. Christopher Higgins, an environmental scientist at the Colorado School of Mines, are cautioning against large-scale usage until the real risks are known. He told Civil Eats:4

"There are no controls at most wastewater treatment plants to ensure you have low concentrations of pharmaceuticals in biosolids. There is no telling what you might have at high concentrations."

Even as a consumer looking to buy a fertilizer to put on your backyard garden, there's no way to know whether you're purchasing biosolids, as companies are not required to disclose when they're being used. In fact, no one really knows how extensively biosolids are being applied to the environment.

In the Vancouver, Canada Nicola Valley area, residents were outraged earlier this year when biosolids were applied to local agricultural land. John Werring, a science adviser at the David Suzuki Foundation, sampled piles of biosolids applied in an area accessible to cattle and had it tested for toxins.

What he found were more than a handful of toxins at levels that exceeded the limits for contaminated sites under British Columbia regulations. This included high levels of:

Cadmium Copper Mercury
Molybdenum Selenium Sodium ion
Tin Zinc Dichlorophenols
Methylphenols Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons Phthalates

Werring told The Vancouver Sun:5

"They're actually dumping contaminated soil on farmland… It makes absolutely no sense for us to be (spreading) that on food-producing land… It gets into the roots, and then it's taken into the vegetation. Then along comes a grazing cow that eats the vegetation and now it's in the cow. And then you slaughter the cow and you put it on the shelf for people to eat."

Biosolids Study Sought in New York State

New York State Assemblyman John D. Ceretto, along with 14 officials and citizens, have appealed to the New York State Department of Health to conduct a study into the human health effects of biosolids.

Many residents had expressed concern over the biosolids being spread on local farms, particularly a brand called "equate," made by a company called Quasar Energy Group. According to the Niagara Gazette:6

"Quasar markets equate as an alternative to traditional soil fertilizers. It is produced as the byproduct of Quasar's anaerobic digesters, which break down sewage with micro-organisms and produce methane to fuel electricity generators.

The digested sludge, environmentally friendly according to Quasar, is then spread on agricultural fields free of charge.

Towns have responded with skepticism to Quasar's push, including Wheatfield, Lewiston, and Pendleton, all of which are pursuing stricter laws to prohibit the spread of equate. The DEC [Department of Environmental Conservation] has endorsed the fertilizer, but requires a permit application in order to spread it."

Residents and officials expressed concern that the DEC was not properly monitoring the spread of biosolids or testing what may be found within it. Lawmakers specifically suggested that equate may have had contact with "industrial waste, emerging contaminants, human feces, and funeral home and hospital refuse."7

A study into the human health effects is long overdue, especially considering that a past analysis of sewage sludge by the Environmental Working Group found:8

  • Over 100 synthetic organic compounds including phthalates, toluene, and chlorobenzene
  • Dioxins in sludge from 179 out of 208 systems (80 percent)
  • Forty-two different pesticides – at least one in almost every sample, with an average of almost two pesticides per survey sample
  • Nine heavy metals, often at high concentrations

Did the EPA Fake the Science of Sewage Sludge 'Safety?'

Download Interview Transcript

Former EPA employee and whistleblower David Lewis, PhD claims the EPA actually faked science to uphold the status quo of using sewage sludge as fertilizer.9 While still an employee of the EPA, Dr. Lewis published evidence showing that a teenager living in New Hampshire died as a result of living near land where sewage sludge was applied. He also provided evidence showing that cows at two Georgia farms were poisoned as a result of grazing on sludged land.

He contends that multiple agencies, including the EPA and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), engaged in a coordinated scheme to "misleadingly present sewage sludge as scientifically safe."

The deception revolves around the issue of whether the toxins found in the sludge are rendered non-bioavailable. According to the EPA, there are "unique properties" in the sludge matrix that prevent harmful toxins from being taken up by plants, animals, and humans. These properties, the EPA claims, sequester metals and other toxins, thereby rendering them harmless. According to Dr. Lewis, this is patently false.

Further, today city sewer lines run right to industrial factories, allowing them to dump their waste into the city's sewage treatment plants. This is now a standard part of our infrastructure, and it saves industries of all kinds a ton of money — billions of dollars — because once a regulated chemical or waste enters the sewer line, they're suddenly exempt from EPA regulation!

"None of the toxic organic chemicals are regulated in sewage sludge, not one of them," Dr. Lewis explains. "Only nine of the 27 toxic, heavy metals that are in the sewage sludge are regulated. The industry has incalculable vested interest in protecting this idea."

What the EPA created is a system in which chemicals we know to be problematic in part per billions and even part per trillions levels in water and in air, are concentrated millions of times higher in sewage sludge, and then applied to farmland and areas where we live and work.

"In 1970, you would have to work in a chemical plant or a petroleum refinery or something similar to get exposed to the hundreds of thousands of toxic chemicals... [at] higher levels. It would be mainly an occupational exposure. Today, over 30 years later, everywhere we live and work it's being spread."

Dr. Lewis detailed these problems in two papers published in Nature, and it was these papers that led to his dismissal from the EPA. He also wrote a book about his experience called Science for Sale: How the US Government Uses Powerful Corporations and Leading Universities to Support Government Policies, Silence Top Scientists, Jeopardize Our Health, and Protect Corporate Profits.

The book elaborates on the enormous conflict of interest between industry and federal regulatory agencies that allows toxins to be quite literally spread all around us.

USDA Petitioned to Ban the Use of Wastewater for Irrigation for Organic Crops

The use of sewage sludge is banned in the production of organic crops precisely because of the many toxic chemicals it may contain. However, the Cornucopia Institute has called on the USDA to tighten federal standards on two other potential sources of contamination – the use of fracking wastewater and wastewater from municipal sewage treatment systems to irrigate organic crops.

Hydrofracturing, or fracking, is "the controversial process of extracting gas from rock formations by bombarding them with water spiked with toxic chemicals."10 It produces copious amounts of wastewater that is contaminated with toxic chemicals and oil.

Likewise, like solid waste from sewage treatment plants (i.e. biosolids), the liquid wastewater is also typically contaminated with drug residues, heavy metals, and toxic chemicals. Jerome Rigot, PhD, a staff scientist at Cornucopia, said:11

"Recycled/treated oil or gas wastewater used for irrigation can be contaminated by a variety of chemicals, including industrial solvents such as acetone and methylene chloride, and hydrocarbons (oil components)…

As an example, irrigation water provided by Chevron contains a variety of contaminants, including several polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs); various volatile organic compounds (VOCs), such as benzene, toluene, xylenes, and acetone; several hydrocarbons; a high concentration of sodium chloride (table salt), other halide salts (bromide, fluoride, and chloride), heavy metals, and radioactive metals (2 radium isotopes). Many of these compounds are potential and known carcinogens."

If you want to get involved, you can sign Cornucopia's petition to the USDA calling for no drilling or sewage wastewater to grow organic food now.

Supporting Local, Small Farms Can Help You Avoid Sewage Sludge and Contaminated Wastewater

As mentioned, companies do not have to disclose when sewage sludge has been used to grow your food or if it's lurking in that bag of compost you purchased from the garden center (and there's a good chance there is). Your best bet for avoidance of not only sewage sludge but also the use of contaminated wastewater for irrigation is to shop locally from small-scale farms (or farmer's markets) you know and trust. Mark A. Kastel, Senior Farm Policy Analyst at The Cornucopia Institute, explained:

"'… [W]hile we wait for the USDA to take action, a little research to learn where your organic food is coming from will pay dividends.' Cornucopia states that the vast majority of family-scale organic farms around the country do not use any risky irrigation water. The families that farm these operations are eating the food out of their own fields, unlike the owners of large industrial operations, producing both organic and conventional produce, that typically work under contract to a major agribusiness.

'By eating as close to home as possible, and buying food that is labeled both local and certified organic, consumers are getting the freshest and most nutritious food possible, and protecting their families from industrial-scale operations that might be more likely to use risky practices.'"

Also, if the bag of compost you're looking at happens to include "milorganite" on the label, avoid it like the plague. Milorganite is a term denoting biosolids. Aside from that, there's no way to tell whether the compost has toxic sludge in it or not. Your best alternative is to contact your local nursery and ask them if they use biosolids in their compost. I happen to live close to a nursery that creates its own compost.

I asked them about the presence of biosolids, and they said, "No, we do not use biosolids. We compost our own soil." They were very well informed about the toxic dangers inherent with the use of biosolids. So it's vital that you discuss what is added to the compost with the person that is actually responsible for producing it. Another alternative is to make your own using a composting bin or wood chips, for example.

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