Organic Consumers Association

EPA Responds to OCA's Action Alert on Contaminants in Fertilizers


Dear Concerned Citizen:

A few days ago I received your email on the subject of contaminants in fertilizers, and in particular, the US Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA's) efforts to regulate fertilizer products that may be made from hazardous wastes or sewage sludge. As you can imagine, I've received quite a few emails on this topic in the past few weeks, many of them apparently responding to a short article that appeared recently in "Organic Bytes" and other on-line newsletters. Since some of the information in the article wasn't entirely accurate, I'm glad to have the opportunity to respond directly to you, to clarify and provide some background information on this important environmental and public health issue.

The article touched on two different (but obviously related) issues-the use of recycled hazardous wastes to make fertilizers, and the sale of fertilizers that contain municipal sewage sludge as an ingredient. While both of these practices have the potential for introducing unwanted contaminants into fertilizer products, they are regulated by EPA somewhat differently, under two different Federal environmental laws.

Fertilizers Made from Recycled Hazardous Wastes

The article begins by stating that "EPA is taking comments regarding the current practice of ridding of hazardous wastes by hiding them in mainstream fertilizers." This statement is incorrect, for at least two reasons. For one, it apparently refers to a rulemaking that was finalized in July, 2002; the formal public comment period on the proposed rule closed in February, 2001. Since we don't have any other fertilizer-related rulemakings underway at this time, we aren't soliciting formal public comments right now on this particular subject. It's unfortunate that the article created a different impression.

Fortunately, the "current practice" described in the article is also incorrect. The idea that hazardous wastes are being "hidden" in fertilizers by unscrupulous manufactuers is essentially a myth, as far as we can tell. EPA and several state agencies have looked into this issue pretty carefully, and we've found very little evidence of such illegal practices, which can be punishable by fines and/or imprisonment. There are a few zinc "micronutrient" fertilizers that are currently made from zinc-bearing hazardous wastes; however, EPA's regulations require that the zinc fertilizer products meet very strict purity standards. This means that the hazardous wastes that are used in this way must be processed with modern technologies to remove heavy metals and other contaminants. As a result, zinc fertilizers made from recycled hazardous wastes are among the "cleanest" fertilizers on the market, and are indistinguishable from similar products made from non-hazardous materials.

It's also important to note that EPA's authority to regulate inorganic fertilizers is actually quite limited. While we have the authority to set standards for fertilizers that are made from hazardous wastes, these products represent less than one-half of one percent of the fertilizers currently sold in this country. State agriculture agencies have the primary responsibility for regulating contaminants in fertilizers, though at this time only California, Oregon, Washington and Texas actually have developed such regulatory programs. Since fertilizers made from "natural" materials can also contain significant amounts of contaminants, EPA supports these state efforts to more comprehensively regulate contaminants in all types of fertilizer products.

For further background information on fertilizer contaminants in general, and on EPA's regulations for hazardous waste derived fertilizers, you may wish to take a look at our website, at: Please feel free as well to contact me directly with any questions in this area. My email address is, and my phone number is (703) 308-0603.

Sewage Sludge as Fertilizer

The use of municipal sewage sludge as a fertilizer or soil amendment is also regulated by EPA, under the Clean Water Act (regulations for hazardous waste derived fertilizers are issued under the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, or RCRA). Sewage sludge isn't classified as hazardous waste, since contaminant levels in this type of material are typically much lower than those in industrial hazardous wastes. Contaminant standards and other requirements for land-applied sewage sludge have been in place since 1993. These regulations apply to sewage sludge that is applied in relatively large quantities to agricultural land, as well as to fertilizers and soil amendment products that are marketed directly to consumers.

Though I'm not a sewage sludge expert, I'm aware that land application of sewage sludge has been a fairly controversial environmental issue for quite a few years. EPA believes that the practice is safe for humans and the environment, based on a considerable amount of scientific evidence. On the other hand, some believe that the risks of using sewage sludge in this way haven't been fully researched, and that the Agency's current regulations may be too lenient.
A lot of the emails I've been receiving have expressed concerns about the lack of labeling of fertilizer products (particularly those marketed to homeowners) that are made from sewage sludge. This is clearly of particular concern for organic farmers and gardeners, as well as consumers of organically grown foods, who want to make sure that sewage sludge isn't used in organic food production. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's regulations for organic foods don't allow the use of sewage sludge in raising crops and livestock that are to be certified as organic. As many of you have noted, the lack of labels on sewage sludge-derived fertilizer products can make it difficult for growers and consumers to know with certainty that sewage sludge hasn't been used in raising organic foods.

I don't really know what the prospects are for EPA to develop new labeling regulations for fertilizers that contain sewage sludge. In any case, you are certainly welcome to express your views on this subject to my colleagues in the Office of Water who are working on sewage sludge regulatory issues. The best contact person there is Mr. Alan Rubin, who can be reached by email at or by phone at (202) 566-1125.

I want to thank you for having taken the time to express your concerns to me on these issues; I hope this response has been helpful. As an organic gardener myself, I think we all share the common goal of protecting the environment, and ensuring that what we eat is safe and nutritious.

Dave Fagan
US EPA, Office of Solid Waste

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