Massive Scam Threatens Your Health — by Placing Toxic Chemicals on Land, Polluting Industries Are Allowed to Bypass Clean Air and Water Regulations

Story at-a-glance

  • Corruption and conflict of interest at the EPA has caused toxic industrial wastes to be stealthily concealed in the fertilizer applied to our farmlands, and sold to us in potting soil with biosolids
  • While the EPA regulates toxic chemical emissions under the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act, when industry dumps waste into the local sewage treatment plant, those same chemicals become exempt from regulation
  • Chemicals known to be problematic in part per billion or part per trillion levels in water and in air are concentrated millions of times higher in sewage sludge, which is applied to farmland and community areas


This is an older article that may not reflect Dr. Mercola’s current view on this topic. Use our search engine to find Dr. Mercola’s latest position on any health topic.

By Dr. Mercola

Eating nutrient-dense, real food is a primary key to staying healthy. Unfortunately, most of the food you buy is probably loaded with industrial toxins.

Ditto for the compost you buy for your garden — even if you opt for organic. What's worse, these toxic chemicals are put there on purpose, thanks to the use of biosolids as fertilizer.

Dr. David Lewis is a microbiologist with a PhD in Microbial Ecology who spent three decades working as an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) scientist.

He got fired for blowing the whistle on the corruption and conflict of interest at the EPA that caused industrial waste and toxins to be stealthily inserted into the fertilizer applied to our farmlands, and sold to us in potting soil with biosolids.

A two-page commentary in Nature, published in1996, entitled "EPA Science: Casualty of Election Politics,"1 encapsulates his experience at the EPA.

He 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.

Beware of the Intellectual Elite...

This is an issue with tremendous implications for your health, and we owe an incredible debt of gratitude to Dr. Lewis for his pioneering work in exposing this massive fraud.

His experience really validates one of President Dwight Eisenhower's predictions as he was leaving his presidency.

Eisenhower not only warned us about the dangers of the military industrial complex, he also warned us of the danger of the intellectual elite, which have the potential to massively corrupt and influence governmental policies.

That is precisely what has occurred in this instance.

"Absolutely. In fact, I quote that at the beginning of my book. After my book was published, I got an email from David Eisenhower, President Eisenhower's grandson, saying how much he appreciated the book and how it highlighted what his grandfather warned us about," Dr. Lewis says.

The Problem, in a Nutshell

Dr. Lewis has done groundbreaking research on the biosolids topic. Beneficial use of sewage — human waste — 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.

The EPA was created in 1970 as a result of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts. Congress and then-President Richard Nixon created the agency to regulate environmental pollutants.

This was a growing concern back in the days when Rachel Carson wrote her book, Silent Spring, and when the Cuyahoga River caught on fire in Cleveland.

"The public became concerned about traces of environmental pollutants at very low concentrations in water," Dr. Lewis explains. "Things that are not very soluble in water like pesticides, pharmaceuticals, and industrial petrochemicals.

These types of chemicals at very low concentrations in water become biomagnified in the food chain, so they end up in bald eagles, human beings, and breast milk.

These same compounds that are very low in concentration in water become millions of times higher in concentration in human and other animal fats. That's the crux of the problem."

The Devil's in the Details: When Good Ideas Go Bad

In the early 1970s, scientists began to understand that even though these chemicals are present at very low concentrations in water, they still pose a very serious threat to public health and the environment, and must be removed. 

Around the same time, President Jimmy Carter began the largest public works program in the history of the United States, building sewage treatment plants across the country.

To the EPA, it seemed logical that sewage sludge (the solid material) that settles out at wastewater treatment plants would be good to apply to farms, golf courses, and school playgrounds.

The problem is that the EPA also allows industrial wastes to be mixed in, and they contain highly toxic chemicals. But just how did that happen?

In 1970, after the Cuyahoga River caught on fire and the EPA was created, various industries were dumping bioproducts and pollutants straight into the river through a pipe.

The EPA began to regulate this waste, and it became very expensive for factories to comply with the Clean Water Act — and this applied to virtually all industries, not just pharmaceutical and chemical companies.

Today, city sewer lines run right to the 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-billion and even part-per-trillion levels in water and in air, are concentrated millions of times higher in sewage sludge, and then applied to farmland, and other 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."

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished When Conflicts of Interest Rule the Day

Dr. Lewis detailed these problems in two papers published in Nature, one of the two most prestigious journals in the world, and it was these papers that led to his dismissal from the EPA.

"One of the two Nature articles that I was fired for was co-authored by Jerry Melillo who, at the time, was President Clinton's associate director for the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) in the White House," Dr. Lewis says.

"For that same paper, I was presented an award in Washington D.C. by the EPA administrator, Carol Browner. I was given the agency's highest award, the Science Achievement Award for biology and ecology, for that paper. But at the same time, I was fired for publishing it."

Dr. Lewis' story is a great illustration of the fact that many of the workers, the dedicated scientists and researchers employed by our regulatory agencies really do have integrity and seek to do the best job they can.

They frequently send warnings up the chain. The problem is that the head of these regulatory agencies, which are mostly politically appointed jobs, tend to come with a lot of conflict-of-interest baggage. To understand just how high up the corruption went, Dr. Lewis filed a number of whistleblower lawsuits, and was granted discovery to the highest levels of the agency.

"In a nutshell, what happened is that... the EPA turned around and began to work with the Water Environment Federation (WEF), the time was the biggest trade organization for the wastewater industry...

What I learned was that in Washington, the staff there was going through the revolving door between government and the industry... The EPA in Washington, their headquarters, formed a cooperative agreement with the Water Environment Federation to use congressional earmarks, tens of millions of dollars, to fund land-grant universities, which are agricultural colleges, to publish... studies and scientific articles that would support the 503 sludge rule.

To make a long story short, the goal was to generate more scientific articles than I, or any scientists at the EPA who might have concerns, could ever do, and that's what happened. In 10 years they had hundreds of papers from agricultural colleges saying this is not a problem."

Important WARNING If You Purchase Potting Soil or Compost

Dr. Lewis, the EPA's own scientists, and other researchers looked at that body of science and realized it was just promoting the government's policies. Policymakers at EPA and USDA described the process by which toxins become harmless as "sludge magic," a nebulous and unscientific term if there ever was one, but this actually ended up being the official term EPA regulators use to support this insane idea that it's okay to spread toxic industrial waste on our lawns and crop fields.

In short, the EPA in collaboration with the wastewater industry custom-made an entire body of science that says it's perfectly safe to take chemicals that the EPA calls "priority pollutants," which by definition cause human health effects and by definition are persistent (they hang around for decades, centuries, or longer), put them into sewage sludge where they become massively concentrated, and then spread them out on farms, and around schools and playgrounds.

When you buy compost or potting soil, chances are it will have biosolids with these concentrated toxins in it. And yes, this includes organic fertilizer and organic mulch. Never-mind the fact that you're paying a premium for it thinking this is the way to avoid these toxins! These composted products can have the USDA organic label on them, and still be loaded with toxic biosolids. Most will not reveal the presence of biosolids, although some companies will include "milogranite" on the label, which is a term denoting biosolids from the City of Milwaukee-a national distributor.

As noted by Dr. Lewis:

"Thanks to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), no one has to label those bags when they contain high levels of lead, cadmium, mercury, arsenic, toxic organic chemicals, pesticides, pharmaceuticals, and all the bad stuff that the EPA worries about. Those bags can contain it, and almost all of them do, and they're being sold as organic fertilizer to concerned citizens who are looking for something to put on their home garden that doesn't have those things in it... 

The USDA has worked hand-in-hand with the EPA. In fact, it is the USDA that created the body of science that's called sludge magic. Thanks to the USDA that that body of science exists because it's the USDA that funds agricultural colleges, the land-grant universities."

How This Nefarious Government Scam Works

The Water Environment Federation and others lobby Congress to earmark taxpayer money to the EPA to gain public acceptance of treated sewage sludge (biosolids). The EPA then takes those earmarks and sends them over to the Water Environment Research Foundation, which supports water quality laboratories at the University of Arizona and elsewhere. The Water Environment Research Foundation funnels millions of dollars into studies aimed at supporting EPA's sludge as safe, and publishes those findings in scientific journals.

That's how this scam is set up. According to Dr. Lewis,

"Everybody has a vested interest in making sure the pollutants that are going on land are not regulated. We have a Clean Water Act and a Clean Air Act, but we don't have a Clean Soil Act. That's where all the [worst] pollutants are going now."   

Water Environment Federation Created a Science Organization Run by Inept Scientists to Do the Industry's Bidding

No wonder the typical consumer gets confused about what's what. But it's incredible to believe that a well-trained scientist in the field would buy into this nonsense. Surely they don't actually believe that toxic chemicals suddenly, by magic, become harmless when mixed into soil? So what's the motivation for going along with this horrid scheme?

"I'll give you my opinion to this based on my personal experience," Dr. Lewis says. "We have, in the EPA, two big players involved in this issue. One is the Office of Water, which comes up with regulations including the 503 sludge rule. You have a separate group that was created independently, originally in 1970, to oversee the science issues, called the Office of Research and Development (ORD). That's where I worked.

In the Office of Research and Development, in the early '70s and for probably a decade and a half or more, we had some of the best scientists in the world...These were not only technically cutting-edge leading scientists. They had no qualms about doing exactly what I did. They stood up to Washington and didn't take any crap from them. But the Office of Water is a different situation. They didn't need high caliber research scientists to write regulations. They needed PhDs in Chemistry, in Biology, and so forth.

This is where my opinion begins. The guy who came up with the idea of promoting the sludge rule at the EPA was a now-retired scientist named John Walker. He wrote a memo to his bosses at the Office of Water and said, 'Hey, there's no reason why we shouldn't apply low levels of toxic chemicals in sludge to farms.' He just rotated over from the USDA. That guy came up with the idea and it became his job to defend that rule.

I hired the best lawyers in the world to defend my whistleblower lawsuit. My attorneys, Steve Kohn and his brother, Mike Kohn... asked John Walker 10 questions in basic microbiology that anybody in junior high school could answer. He couldn't answer any of them. The problem is that the requirements for promotion in civil service for scientists in the Office of Water are the same as the Office of Research and Development...

When the guys at the Office of Water went in for their performance evaluation twice a year, like I did, they had to have scientific articles. They had to chair scientific symposiums. They had to do all the same things I did. How did they do that? Well, the Water Environment Federation created its own science organization and put them in charge of this scam. It's a whole shadow of what's in the scientific community. It is money-driven. It's the only way they could get promoted. It selected scientists, who, in my opinion, are not crooked, [but who] are not equipped with the knowledge of a worthy scientist. It is ignorance....

When Alan Rubin, who is another big player in the Office of Water, was deposed in one of my lawsuits, he was asked this question by my attorney, 'Why are you giving David Lewis such a hard time about these articles he's publishing?'... He said, 'My career is built on 503 sludge rule. If it's ever shown to be scientifically unsound, if he's disproving it, it reflects on my reputation.' These guys are looking out for their reputation."

How Can You Avoid Using Toxic Biosolids in Your Own Garden?

If the bag of compost you're looking at happens to include "milorganite" on the label, avoid it like the plague. 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 their 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.

More Information

In 1996, after Dr. Lewis published his commentary in Nature, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) in Cambridge, Massachusetts did a survey of the EPA's scientists in the Office of Research and Development, where he worked. Thousands of scientists filled out questionnaires, and over half of all these EPA scientists admitted that in the previous five years, they had been asked to change their results and conclusions because they conflicted with the EPA's policies...

This is the reality, and considering that was 20 years ago, the situation is probably even worse today. If you want to learn more about these issues, I highly recommend reading Dr. Lewis' book, 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. Dr. Lewis is Director of Research for the Focus for Health Foundation.

Last update: November 01, 2015

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