America has a crappy problem. Literally. A few decades ago, the EPA decided that human waste, which they called “bio-sludge,” could be used as fertilizer for the crops that we eat. This practice puts thousands of harmful chemicals, hormones, drugs, and pathogens right into your mouth with every bite you take of American-grown food.
Disgusted yet? The fact is, you probably have no idea just how bad our food system has been corrupted, and how many dangerous pathogens are in our food chain.
Americans send about 300 million pounds of feces daily from the nation’s toilets to wastewater treatment plants.
While the water is cleaned and discharged, the remaining toxic sewage sludge stays at the treatment plant, and it’s what Sierra Club environmentalist Nancy Raine calls “the most pollutant-rich manmade substance on Earth.”
This “biosolid” sludge is expensive to dispose of because it must be landfilled, but the waste management industry is increasingly using a money-making alternative – repackaging the sludge as fertilizer and injecting it into the nation’s food chain.
Now the practice is behind a growing number of public health problems. Spreading pollutant-filled biosolids on farmland is making people sick, contaminating drinking water and filling crops, livestock and humans with everything from pharmaceuticals to dangerous diseases.
In 2019, about 60% of sewage sludge produced by treatment facilities was spread on farmland and gardens, as well as schoolyards and lawns. Sludge holds nitrogen, phosphorus and other nutrients that help crops grow, so the waste management industry lightly treats it and sells it cheaply to farmers who view it as a cost-saving product.
But in fact, by the time the mix lands in treatment plants, it can teem with pharmaceuticals, hormones, pathogens, bacteria, viruses, protozoa and parasitic worms, as well as heavy metals like lead, cadmium, arsenic or mercury. It often includes PCBs, PFAS, dioxins, BPAs and dozens of other harmful substances ranging from flame retardants to hospital waste.
“Spending billions of dollars to remove hazardous chemicals and biological wastes from water, only to spread them on soil everywhere we live, work and play defies common sense,” said David Lewis, a former Environmental Protection Agency scientist who opposed spreading sludge on cropland in the mid-1990s as the agency approved the use.
In what biosolid testing the EPA has conducted, it identified more than 350 pollutants. That includes 61 it classifies “as acutely hazardous, hazardous or priority pollutants,” but the law requires only nine of those be removed. Moreover, the EPA and wastewater treatment plants don’t test for or otherwise analyze most of the 80,000 manmade chemicals.
In a scathing 2018 report, the EPA office of inspector general noted the agency couldn’t properly regulate biosolids, even if it sincerely tried, because “it lacked the data or risk assessment tools needed to make a determination on the safety of 352 pollutants found in biosolids.”
And even more alarming, commercially available fertilizers that are applied to fields across the country and grow the crop you eat, sometimes contain very small warnings on the labels that state that it contains chemicals that can cause cancer and birth defects, just to keep the manufacturers out of trouble when people start dying from using their products.
A University of North Carolina study found 75% of people living near farms that spread biosolids experienced health issues like burning eyes, nausea, vomiting, boils and rashes, while others have contracted MRSA, a penicillin-resistant “superbug.”
In South Carolina, sludge containing high levels of carcinogenic PCBs was spread on cropland, and in Georgia sludge killed cows. Biosolids are also thought to be partly responsible for toxic algae blooms in the Great Lakes and Florida, and biosolid treatment centers regularly pollute the air around them.
Meanwhile, sewage sludge is behind a widening PFAS crisis that has contaminated farms in Maine, Michigan, Wisconsin, Alabama and Florida. PFAS, or “forever chemicals” are linked to a range of serious health problems like cancer, thyroid disorders, immune disorders and low birth weight. The chemicals are a product used to make non-stick or water-resistant products, and are found in everything from raincoats to dental floss to food packaging.
Maine’s testing of 44 fields sprayed with biosolids earlier this year consistently found alarming PFAS levels in the ground, cows and farmers’ blood, which forced one dairy farm to shut down.
“They’re finding kilograms of PFAS in sewage sludge when nanograms are harmful to humans, so you can’t regulate it as a fertilizer,” said Laura Orlando, a civil engineer who tracks problems with biosolids.
Still, state governments continue to allow biosolids to be spread on farmland or sold in compost.
In Michigan, an environmental official recently said the state won’t test for PFAS in milk because it doesn’t want to put farmers out of business.
Don Dickerson, a farmer with land in Michigan and Ohio, said that biosolid dust from an adjacent field had coated his home and crops in the substance. Paul Wohlfarth, a resident of Riga Township, Michigan, said sludge is contaminating his well, and charged that biosolids from the state’s cities were “turning Riga Township into a waste dump.”
“When you put heavy metals, PFAS, plastics, pharmaceuticals and all that in the soil, sooner or later it gets toxic, and you can’t wish that stuff away. You’re ruining the topsoil forever,” he said.
Though the government is reacting slowly or ignoring problems, other countries have banned the use of biosludge.
Still, the wastewater industry has strongly denied that health issues exist and regularly calls any contrary evidence anecdotal.
Despite its chemical makeup, the wastewater industry bills biosolids as “green” and even sells it as organic fertilizer in stores like Walmart and Lowe’s, though packaging doesn’t indicate that it’s composed of human and industrial waste.
The waste management industry treats sludge in several ways before labeling it fertilizer – air drying, pasteurization and composting are among common methods. Lime is employed to raise the pH level to eliminate odors, and some, but not all of the pathogens, viruses and other organisms are killed in the process.
And none of the thousands of chemicals known to be in biosolids are removed.
Penn State University says, “because of its pathogen content and its unstable, decomposable nature, raw sewage sludge is a health and environmental hazard.”
America is a strange country. What is best for the people often takes a backseat to what’s best for profits. In order to protect your health, Americans must now pay close attention to where and how their food was grown.