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Stop the Sewer Sludge From Ending Up in Your Food

Analysis by Dr. Joseph Mercola Fact Checked

stop sewer sludge from ending up in your food

Story at-a-glance -

  • Sewer sludge spread over agricultural land is being absorbed by plant material or is running off into nearby streams and waterways, polluting the food supply; tainted milk from one dairy farm in Maine highlights the problem of sludge used to fertilize hay eaten by the cows
  • The term “sludge magic” was coined by a career chemist at the EPA to describe how pollutants commonly found in sewer sludge “magically” stayed in the sludge and didn’t get absorbed by plant material or runoff into waterways. Testing reveals a different story
  • Toxins found in biosolids interfere with plant hormones, reduce chlorophyll levels and stunt root growth; research acknowledges contamination with toxic heavy metals may limit use
  • Despite a revealing report by the Office of Inspector General demonstrating the EPA's promotion of sewer sludge does not protect consumer health, the EPA continues to encourage its use and claims the agency is unable to do requested risk assessments on the material

The term “biosolids” was coined to cover the more visually disgusting term of sewage sludge, a product used by farmers as fertilizer on agricultural land. This under-publicized threat to human health is generated during the treatment of domestic waste and contains a cocktail of hazardous substances discharged into the sewer system.

Combined sewer systems are an underground network of pipes designed to dry out streets by collecting rainwater, domestic sewage and industrial wastewater in the same pipe. When sewer lines run directly into factories, their waste is combined with the city's sewage treatment plants, making it exempt from EPA regulation.

This combination of industrial and human waste is collected at wastewater treatment plants where the solids are removed, the water treated and then released back into the environment. The sewer sludge may be burned, dumped at a landfill or processed into biosolids.

What Are Biosolids?

According to the EPA,1 biosolids result from the treatment of domestic sewage at a treatment facility where it is processed and residuals are recycled. The sewage is then applied as fertilizer on agricultural lands. According to the EPA,2 “Biosolids are treated sewage sludge. Biosolids are carefully treated and monitored and must be used in accordance with regulatory requirements.”

While this statement makes it seem biosolids are safe for application on agricultural lands, recent findings in dairy products3 and a report from the Office of Inspector General (OIG)4 demonstrates they are not.

The production of biosolids begins with sewage from wastewater treatment plants. Research from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS)5 has shown household chemicals and drugs are found in biosolids originating from wastewater treatment plants, as these plants are unable to eliminate the compounds.

USGS scientists6 found relatively high concentrations of active ingredients of drugs and chemicals in biosolids. The researchers purchased or obtained nine different biosolids and analyzed them for 87 organic chemicals, finding 55 were detected in measurable amounts and as many as 45 were found in a single sample.

Additionally, the nine samples were more similar than they were different, meaning although they were produced using a variety of treatment processes and from different geographical areas, the contaminants and relationship to each other did not vary greatly. Although the EPA states biosolids are harmless, chemicals linked to cancer are being milked from dairy cows in Maine.7

Tainted Milk Highlights Hidden Threat to Food Supply

Public advocates in Maine are now calling for the ban of biosolids as fertilizer after finding it destroyed a dairy farmer’s living and polluted a public water supply. Beginning in the late 1980s, Fred Stone began spreading biosolids over his hayfields that fed his dairy cattle.

Stone said he didn't know the sludge could be contaminated with PFAS, chemicals associated with cancer, liver damage, low birth weight and hypothyroidism.

Two years after discovering milk from his dairy cows was contaminated with PFAS, he has been dumping 100 gallons or more of fresh milk daily, as the cows continue to produce milk with lingering contamination. He estimates he's losing up to $450 a day. During a media conference at his farm, Stone said:8

“The toxic chemicals that I never used and had never even known about until two years ago contaminated my cows — which I really take exception to — and ruined my farming operation and hurt my family. I want the state of Maine to make sure that no other farming families have to go through what’s happening to us. Believe me, I would not wish this on my worst enemies.”

Although a task force has been created to study the degree of PFAS contamination in Maine, advocates are urging the administration to aggressively end the use of biosolids and any PFAS chemical use in products in Maine. Patrick MacRoy, deputy director of the Environmental Health Strategy Center suggests:9

“It seems highly unlikely that Mr. Stone’s farm is the only one with PFAS contamination from sludge. All of the evidence suggests that this is but the tip of the toxic iceberg. There are likely other farms — dairy or otherwise — with similar contamination. Until the tests are done, that is the only safe assumption we can make.”

This tip of the iceberg is a far cry from the EPA’s claim biosolids are safe for use and their continued promotion of the sewer sludge as fertilizer on agricultural lands where chemicals are absorbed into the plants.

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‘Sludge Magic’ Is Life-Threatening Sleight of Hand

Although much of the PFAS contamination cases have involved industrial sites and military bases, contamination on this dairy farm in Maine raises a broader public health issue since biosolids have been used on farms across the U.S. for decades.

A spokesperson from Maine's Department of Environmental Protection (DEP)10 attempted to reassure local residents by saying they intended to actively consider regulatory options for the spread of sludge throughout the state before “this year's sludge spreading season gets underway.”

Although Maine's DEP said the application was more common in the 1990s, Reuters news agency reported 66 areas are presently allowed to use sludge spreading.11 Stone also reports he had been hired to spread treated sludge across several sewer districts on roughly a dozen farms throughout Maine. To date, the Press Herald reports the DEP has only tested one other farm near Stone’s where the sludge was applied.12

You might wonder how and why toxic material has been allowed to be spread as fertilizer for so long. This sleight of hand dates back to a deposition given by Alan Rubin,13 career chemist at the EPA Office of Water, who coined the term “sludge magic.”

When the EPA proposed 503 Sludge Rule, a research director at the EPA lab in Georgia asked Rubin to explain how sewage sludge renders pollutants unavailable. Under deposition, Rubin testified he coined the term “sludge magic” in the conversation as:14

“[T]here are unique properties in the biosolids matrix that sequester metals, that sequester organics. By sequester I mean significantly reduce the mobility to move from the biosolids out to the environment …

I’m talking about organic materials, like unit type materials, and carbohydrates, and manganese, and iron, and phosphorus, and all of these work together with the soil in a matrix to significantly reduce, if not eliminate movement of pollutants from the biosolids out to the environment.

The processes, some of them are understood, some of them are not that well understood, but the whole thing taken together is called magic. So I coined the term [sludge] magic.”

When asked about the studies proving Rubin’s “magic” in the deposition, he couldn’t identify if there were any, but deferred to Rufus Chaney, from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, who was “like a walking encyclopedia.”15

Exposure to Food Grown in Sewer Sludge Increases Your Risk of Ill Health

The 503 Sludge Rule from the EPA was born after the 1992 ban on ocean dumping in an attempt to find a way of disposing of sewage sludge. Despite their own scientists’ opposition, millions of dollars were spent supporting articles from agricultural colleges backing the idea that spreading hazardous waste on farmland would suddenly make the waste harmless.16

In a study from the University of York in the United Kingdom,17 data revealed plants suffer when biosolids are applied to the soil. Even with low-level exposure, the drugs studied interfered with plant hormones that support defense against predators and diseases.

The drugs also damaged the plant's ability to make energy from sunlight, and at higher concentrations the research team saw a drop in the leaves’ levels of chlorophyll. At high concentrations, the plants experienced stunted roots and burnt edges on the leaves.18

In a review19 of the use of biosolids in agriculture, published in the industry journal Waste Management, the authors noted that while sludge waste contains valuable plant nutrients, the presence of heavy metals may limit its use on cropland, as this kind of contamination can lead to food chain contamination and have fatal consequences.20

The industry argues biosolid fertilizers slowly release nitrogen and phosphorus as well as essential micronutrients, including nickel and copper. However, biosolids also contain pharmaceutical compounds, hormones, fire retardants and plasticizers. Once pumped onto farm lands and golf courses these chemicals may be washed into local water sources,21 or incorporated into the plants,22,23,24 eventually ending up in the food chain.

EPA Promotes Biosolids Despite Data Demonstrating Potential Harm

The mixture of chemicals found in sewage is highly toxic to the land, plants and human health. A recent report from the OIG25 found holes in the EPA’s controls over the land application of sewer sludge that may affect your health. The EPA currently monitors nine regulated pollutants but lacks the tools to determine the safety of hundreds of others, including pesticides, pharmaceuticals and solvents.

In studies published from 1989 to 2015, the EPA has identified 352 pollutants in biosolids, including 61 designated as acutely hazardous, hazardous or priority pollutants. According to the OIG report:26

“The Clean Water Act requires the EPA to review biosolids regulations at least every two years to identify additional toxic pollutants and promulgate regulations for such pollutants … The EPA has reduced staff and resources in the biosolids program over time, creating barriers to addressing control weaknesses identified in the program.

Past reviews showed that the EPA needed more information to fully examine the health effects and ecological impacts of land-applied biosolids. Although the EPA could obtain additional data to complete biosolids risk assessments, it is not required to do so. Without such data, the agency cannot determine whether biosolids pollutants with incomplete risk assessments are safe.

The EPA’s website, public documents and biosolids labels do not explain the full spectrum of pollutants in biosolids and the uncertainty regarding their safety. Consequently, the biosolids program is at risk of not achieving its goal to protect public health and the environment.”

The report goes on to say:27

“More than 20 years after the Biosolids Rule was finalized, no new pollutants have been added to the list of nine metals regulated under the rule. When we shared our initial findings with the EPA in March 2018, it had not finalized its 2013 and 2015 biennial reviews of the biosolids standards required by the Clean Water Act and was not in compliance with that provision of the act …

On its website, the EPA does not disclose that because it cannot assess the safety of the 352 pollutants found in biosolids, it cannot inform the public as to whether the biosolids are safe.”28

The EPA did agree to modify claims on their website, but only after they completed risk assessments for the hundreds of unregulated pollutants. In other words, these toxins are assumed safe until proven otherwise.

The Sierra Club29 reported that September 17, 2018, the EPA’s Office of Water told the OIG they lack the tools to do these risk assessments. Therefore, until the risk assessments are done — which the EPA says it cannot do — the EPA will continue to vigorously promote biosolids as a safe and beneficial fertilizer option for farmers.

How to Find Safe Food for Your Family

There are still safe food options, but it does take a bit of digging to find them. Your local grocery store is generally not going to be the best source for healthy, fresh food. Short of starting your own sustainable farm (which you may do on a small-scale in your own backyard), you may find safe options by supporting sustainable agriculture movements in your area. Make it a point to only buy food from a source you know and trust, one using safe, nontoxic organic farming methods.