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It's Time to Stop Putting Toxic Sewage Sludge on Farmlands, Yards, and Backyard Gardens

On April 14, 2008, the Associated Press broke a story about a sewage sludge study in Baltimore, Maryland, that banked on kids eating the sludge. The Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health defended its participation in the study in an opinion piece in the Baltimore Sun on April 28, 2008.

The dean of the Bloomberg School of Public Health, Dr. Michael Klag, is terribly wrong when he claims Johns Hopkins' researchers had spread "compost," not sludge, on poor, black kids' yards in Baltimore. The "compost" came from Baltimore's Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant. Composted or not, sewage sludge is poisonous.

The intended product of wastewater treatment is clean water. Sewage sludge is the inevitable byproduct that, by definition and intention, consists of every waste material a given wastewater treatment plant is capable of removing, or is incidentally removed, from the sewage in the process of treating the wastewater. This means that, besides human urine and feces, tens of thousands of chemicals -- organic and inorganic, teratogenic and carcinogenic, toxic and estrogen mimicking -- will be present in the sludge.

The wastewater treatment industry's -- and the EPA's -- preferred method of disposal of sewage sludge in the United States is "land application." To get the public to accept this has required a concerted effort from government and the sludge-industry to make the public think that sludge is "organic," "nutrient-rich," and otherwise "beneficial." Calling sludge "compost" is another trick. The idea of "composting" sludge is based on the dependable presence of human feces in sludge. Human feces do indeed consist largely of organic matter. But sludge consists only partly of human feces.

The idea, therefore, of "treating" sludge so that it can become "compost," a "soil amendment," a "fertilizer" -- is disingenuous. Once mixed together, the potential value of each and all of the materials concentrated in the sludge is lost. No "treatment" of sludge can "purify" the human excrement: once mixed with poisons, it too becomes a poison. Calling Baltimore sewage sludge "compost" is linguistic detoxification and nothing more.

What should be done? Put sludge in bags of neat looking pellets to sell as compost to unwary gardeners? Put it on Little League ball fields? Don't mention wastewater contaminants like pharmaceuticals and brominated flame retardants and instead see what happens when kids eat it? That will get rid of some of it -- and it will take a long time for people to come to understand what happened to them.

The sewage sludge haul-and-dump industry (haul it out of the wastewater treatment plan and dump it where ever the opposition is likely to be least) is an eleven billion dollar a year industry. The Carlyle Group, one of the world's largest private equity firms, recently bought the largest sludge hauler, Synagro. It is big business and risk free, since all liability is transferred to whomever owns the property where the stuff is dumped. What can be done to protect public health and the environment from this onslaught? First, start telling the truth: sewage sludge is a toxic byproduct of wastewater treatment and there is no process or technology that will make it safe. Next, place an immediate moratorium on the land application of sewage sludge. And -- as if one needs to say this -- don't feed it to kids.

Laura Orlando Executive Director RILES

Johns Hopkins' Sludge Study: Bad Science, Bad Policy is on the web at


"Sewage-Based Fertilizer Safety Doubted," March 7, 2008, by John Heilprin and Kevin S. Vineys, Associated Press

"National policy brought sludge to Augusta farms: Ruling for farmer disputes government data," March 9, 2008, Associated Press

"Sludge Tested As Lead-Poisoning Fix," April 14, 2008, John Heilprin and Kevin S. Vineys (AP)

"Hopkins' hands clean," April 28, 2008, by Gary W. Goldstein and Michael J. Klag, Op/Ed in the Baltimore Sun

"No one knows what makes up sewage sludge," May 11, 2008, by Kevin S. Vineys, Associated Press

The journal Nature (May 15, 2008): “stuck in the mud” editorial, p 258, and “raking through sludge exposes stink: Environmental Protection Agency scientists accused of fabricating data about health effects of fertilizer," by Jeff Tollefson,” p 262

Piling It High May 21, 2008, by Joel Bliefuss, In These Times

Petition to stop the land application of sewage sludge (October 2003)

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