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Shockingly, 1993's Science is Now Outdated

by: Jill Richardson

Wed Jun 22, 2011 at 14:05:36 PM PDT

Oh, the good old days of 1993. That was the year that our family got its first computer with a color screen and a CD-ROM. The internet was still years away for us. Imagine what other developments science and technology have given us since then. And yet, the US is still using rules developed in 1993 to govern sludge that is applied to farmland where food is grown. Small wonder that scientists found that those rules are outdated. In fact, they were outdated long before now. The National Research Council said they were already outdated by 2002. But what does industry say? Roughly: "Nothing to see here. Move along." No, these are definitely not the droids you're looking for.

But when their analyses included noroviruses, the yearly risk for infection via inhalation rose dramatically, to at least 1 in 1,000. Noroviruses cause more than half of all foodborne gastroenteritis outbreaks in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

This result, says Peccia, shows that the biosolids treatments that eliminate enteroviruses or Salmonella, or reduce them to levels the government deems acceptable, can leave behind potentially harmful levels of emerging pathogens. Unfortunately, very few epidemiological studies have looked at ties between infections and biosolids, Peccia says. As a result, he and his colleagues don't make firm recommendations on how to lower the risks. Still, Peccia says that a logical response from EPA would be to mandate that sewage sludge processors use the best available treatments, which heat sludge to effectively pasteurize it, and reduce the levels of pathogens like norovirus, he says.

This study demonstrates that testing for pathogens is "behind the times," says Michael Hansen, senior scientist with the nonprofit Consumers Union. EPA's ignoring emerging pathogens could result in underestimating risk by orders of magnitude, he says. However, Hansen worries even more about sewage sludge's potential for harboring toxic industrial chemicals like flame retardants, as well as pharmaceuticals excreted from the body, such as birth control drugs and antibiotics. These substances may cause illness if they are absorbed by crops and enter the food supply, he says, but none are being tested for or removed from sludge. [emphasis mine]

As for the lack of data on sludge and disease? The 2002 report from the National Research Council said the same thing. Let's hope the Obama EPA takes this more seriously than the Bush EPA did.

Discuss :: (6 Comments)

Why is the Monterey Bay Aquarium Greenwashing Sewage Sludge?

by: Jill Richardson

Thu May 19, 2011 at 09:29:43 AM PDT

Today, the nation's major sustainable food writers and bloggers will converge on Monterey, CA for an incredible invite-only sustainable food conference. The event, Monterey Bay Aquarium's Cooking for Solutions, which those who attend say is spectacular, has a new sponsor this year: Kellogg Garden Products. Yes, that Kellogg Garden Products. The very same company that has contaminated "organic" school gardens in Los Angeles with sewage sludge. The company's Chief Sustainability Officer, Kathy Kellogg Johnson, has a knack for befriending "green" organizations and using them to promote her toxic, misleadingly labeled products to unsuspecting gardeners. In this case, she's listed as a "Silver Sponsor." How much did her company pay to give her such a nice platform, sitting on a panel with Grist's sustainable food writer Tom Philpott and telling an all-media audience about the sustainability of Kellogg Garden Products?
There's More... :: (6 Comments, 816 words in story)

And the Razzie goes to Norman Lear's EMA for Exposing Kids to Sewage Sludge and Not Coming Clean

by: Jill Richardson

Sun May 08, 2011 at 21:51:12 PM PDT

For a non-actress surrounded by movie stars, Debbie Levin, President of the Environmental Media Association (EMA) - an organization founded by Norman Lear - is putting on quite a performance of her own. Too bad it's more likely to win her a fraud charge than an Oscar, based on her May 6, 2011 letter to her Board provided to the Food Rights Network by a source inside EMA.  
There's More... :: (18 Comments, 2149 words in story)

I Never Promised You an Organic Garden

by: Jill Richardson

Tue May 03, 2011 at 12:26:09 PM PDT

A story has been developing over the past month involving lies, toxic sludge, Hollywood celebrities, and poor, inner city school children. It centers around the Environmental Media Association (EMA), a group of environmentally conscious Hollywood celebs, and the "organic" school gardens they've been volunteering at for the past past couple years. Stars like Rosario Dawson, Amy Smart, Emmanuelle Chriqui, and Nicole Ritchie have generously adopted Los Angeles schools, visiting the schools and helping the children garden. What the celebs didn't know is that their organization's corporate donor - Kellogg Garden Products - sells both organic compost and soil amendments and ones made from sewage sludge. Seventy percent of Kellogg's business is products made from sewage sludge. Sewage sludge is not allowed on organic farms and gardens.

In late March, the Center for Media & Democracy (CMD) wrote to EMA, alerting them that Kellogg products contain sludge, which may jeopardize the safety and the organic status of the gardens. As a result of the letter, John Stauber, founder of CMD, then met with Ed Begley, Jr., famous environmentalist and EMA board member, who was concerned about the possibility that sludge was used on the gardens.

Following that meeting, a reply came back from EMA's President, Debbie Levin, who has been called "Hollywood's Conscience," asking CMD to stop communicating with Ed Begley, Jr. and to call off its public campaign against the use of Kellogg products on the LA school gardens. She asserted that her organization never claimed the gardens were organic. Then, in the next week, EMA removed the word "organic" from its webpage about its school garden program... but left it in on some pages. (See screenshots here) EMA refers to the gardens as "organic" in a fundraising form, leading donors to believe they are contributing to organic school gardens. Ironically, in 2003, EMA gave an award to King of the Hill for its episode titled "I Never Promised You an Organic Garden." Talk about foreshadowing.

SFGate and Mother Jones each wrote articles on this story, published a few days after Levin's initial email reply. The Mother Jones piece features a picture of Rosario Dawson gardening with children, with a bag of Kellogg's Amend (made from sewage sludge and contaminated with dioxins and other hazardous material) behind them. The article says:

"This was one of those unfortunate weird things," says EMA president Debbie Levin, who hadn't known anything about Amend before the shoot. Amend, she later learned, is not approved for organic farming because it's made from municipal sewage sludge.


So what to do if you're a home gardener who wants compost without the sewage? Try checking the website of the Organic Materials Review Institute, which vets agricultural products used by certified organic farmers. That's the preferred approach of Levin, who stresses that no Kellogg Amend was ever actually applied to EMA's gardens (though one school may have inadvertently ordered a different sludge-based product). "Everything was according to what we asked for," she says. "We use the organic stuff."

That much is old news. According to Levin, she and EMA were unaware that Kellogg products contained sludge, but not to worry because the products in the photos were never used. (Does that mean the bags of Amend that appear in many pictures of the school gardens were brought in for use as props in photo ops and then removed? Even if that were the case, it's unfortunate that an environmental organization is giving that sort of free publicity to an environmentally unsound product like Amend.)

Here's the new part of the story. Mud Baron, a Master Gardener who worked for the LA Unified School District's garden program from 2006 to 2011, has come forward, with a signed, notarized affidavit, alleging that he informed Levin and others at EMA that some Kellogg products contained sewage sludge, which is not permissible on organic gardens, as early as summer 2009. (See his statement here.) Levin repeatedly assured him that all of the products donated from Kellogg would be organic.

Baron also says he questioned the appropriateness of an environmental group promoting a corporation that sold sewage sludge as "compost," and those concerns were ignored and overruled as well. (Kellogg products identify the sewage sludge only as "compost" on product labels. The packages use the word "organic," misleading some gardeners that they are appropriate to use on organic gardens.)

Baron says he continually raised the issue of sewage sludge in Kellogg products, but Levin responded "We've been doing our projects for 20 years, we know what we are doing." Yet order records from the schools betray that one high school ordered 192 bags of Gromulch, made with sludge, in 2010 alone. Baron adds that the resource-strapped schools shared the donations they received from Kellogg, so the 384 cubic feet of Gromulch may be split among several schools' gardens. And worse, a 2010 test by San Francisco's Public Utilities Commission found dangerously high levels of cancer-causing dioxins in Kellogg's Amend. (Gromulch was not tested.)

Thus far, the response to CMD's Food Rights Network) from EMA's Executive Director Greg Baldwin is that in the future, EMA will ensure that only organic (OMRI-listed) products are used in the school gardens. Furthermore, they will no longer refer to the gardens as organic.

There is no evidence that EMA has notified the LA Unified School District, the schools, the children, the children's parents, the celebrities who were promoting the school gardens, the donors who provided the funding for the gardens while believing they were organic, or all of EMA's board members that the school gardens are not organic and may contain sewage sludge from Kellogg Garden Products. When asked in an email, Levin refused to answer whether these steps were taken yet or not.

Lisa Graves, executive director of CMD, says, "We are demanding that EMA end the greenwashing now, and end its relationship with Kellogg and any other organization that refuses to clearly label its products as 'derived from sewage sludge.' We are also asking that EMA notify the children, the schools, and the donors who contributed money for the "organic" gardens. Last, EMA must remediate the gardens that have been contaminated."

Your move, EMA.

Disclosure: I am being paid for my work on this by the Center for Media & Democracy

Discuss :: (11 Comments)

Happy International Compost Awareness Week!

by: Jill Richardson

Sun May 01, 2011 at 15:29:23 PM PDT

Guess what today is? You might guess May Day and, well, you'd be right. But it's also the first day of International Compost Awareness Week! Woohoo! And... you lucky reader of this blog you... yours truly has been hired by the Center for Media and Democracy to blog about it.

To start out our celebration, unfortunately, I have a very sad story to share. You see, yesterday I went to help out in a garden in San Diego. The garden belongs to a man who has undergone a series of surgeries in the past year and while he and his wife love the fresh, homegrown food, he's limited physically as he recovers. So I go over there every now and again to help him out. Yesterday I brought over a bunch of tomatoes, melons, and squash seedlings to plant and, as I entered the garden, I stopped dead in my tracks.

This garden is mostly organic. It's an attempt at biointensive gardening, as described by John Jeavons in his book How to Grow More Vegetables... But there, next to the patch where we were planting the peppers, was a half-full open bag of Kellogg's Amend.

The man whose garden this is, he's a smart guy. We talk a lot, and he's pretty aware of what he's doing in his garden. He probably read the label before purchasing Amend. What's in it? The label says "Ingredients: Blended and screened forest products, composted rice hulls, compost, poultry manure, gypsum." It also says "Quality Organics since 1925." The bag tells how the product should be used in vegetable gardens, and how it is ideal for loosening up clay soil. What it doesn't say is that it's actually made from Los Angeles sewage sludge. You would have no way of knowing that if you read the label. And if you didn't know to look for the term "OMRI Listed" (which means that a product is suitable for organic agriculture) you might think the product is organic.

"Oh god," I said. I told him that Amend was made from sewage sludge. He said the nursery he got it from recommended the product, and he used half the bag on his citrus trees. He was upset that it was made from sewage sludge, and that he had no way of knowing that before buying it. He was upset that he has no way of knowing what the hell he's put on his citrus trees. Sewage sludge can have any number of contaminants in it (and often does). Some, like heavy metals, flame retardants, nanosilver, and certain pharmaceuticals, are almost universally found in sewage sludge, even the treated stuff approved to be used in gardens and farms. Other contaminants, including dioxins, furans, pesticides, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, phthalates, endotoxins, and more, are only found some of the time... but since they aren't regulated, a gardener has no way of knowing if a bag of Amend contains them or not. Only 10 heavy metals, salmonella, and fecal coliform are regulated in the most strictly regulated sewage sludge, which is called Class A biosolids.

Ironically, this nasty product, Amend has a very big link to International Compost Awareness Week. International Compost Awareness Week (ICAW, for short) is being put on by the US Composting Council. USCC's board is dominated by companies that sell sewage sludge as "compost," companies like Synagro, A1 Organics, ERTH Products, and others. One of their board members, Jeff Ziegenbein, works for the Inland Empire Utilities Agency and the Inland Empire Regional Composting Authority. The latter organization operates a large sewage sludge composting plant that takes sewage sludge from both Los Angeles and the Inland Empire, composts it, and then sells it to Kellogg Garden Products, the maker of Amend and other sludge-based products, Gromulch, Topper, and Nitrohumus. And if you're a gardener in Southern California, then lucky you! You can find these products for about $5.97 per 2 cubic foot bag in your local gardening stores! And since they don't say "sewage sludge" or even the euphemism "biosolids" anywhere on the bag, you might buy them without ever knowing what's in them.

So happy International Compost Awareness Week, Jeff Ziegenbein. This week, I will be doing my best to help promote awareness of WHAT'S IN COMMERCIALLY SOLD COMPOST PRODUCTS so that unsuspecting gardeners like my friend don't accidentally buy your sludge.

Discuss :: (15 Comments)

I Dare You: Put Sewage Sludge in Your Mouth

by: Jill Richardson

Sun Apr 24, 2011 at 15:09:26 PM PDT

A new Washington Post piece by Darryl Fears claims sewage sludge is safe enough to put in your mouth. Specifically, the statement was made about "Class A Biosolids," the treated sewage sludge (renamed "biosolids" to make it sound less unpleasant) that has regulated amounts of 10 heavy metals, salmonella, and fecal coliform.

What else might you find in sewage sludge? Well... Alkylphenols and alkylphenol ethoxylates, dioxins and furans, flame retardants, heavy metals (including some that are not regulated), hormones, pesticides, perfluorinated compounds, pharmaceuticals, phthalates, polycyclic aromatic hydrogens, steroids, and more... Still wanna put that in your mouth?

Fears was not advocating that anyone put sewage sludge in their mouths... at least, not directly. The article was instead about how sludge should be used as fertilizer for food crops... which people would then put in their mouths.

For the past year, on and off, I've been working with the Center for Media & Democracy's Food Rights Network, a group that opposes the use of sewage sludge as fertilizer on food crops. So, full disclosure, I've been getting paid to research the hell out of sewage sludge and to write about it. I've even been paid to go to my local Home Depot and buy three bags of sludge compost to send samples to a lab for testing. And let me tell you... if the long list of sludge contaminants and the EPA's own record of what they found in sewage sludge doesn't scare you off of using sludge as fertilizer, the smell of it will. It's not a poop smell - it's a chemical smell. An incredibly volatile, potent one.

The question is, of course, what are you putting in your mouth when you eat food grown in sludge? And the answers are: "We don't know" and "That depends." We don't know because it's almost entirely unregulated and because there are an awful lot of chemicals out there that just haven't been studied well enough to have the answers. Additionally, once you finish studying each individual chemical, then you'd have to study all of the combinations to see what happens when you mix them together in a toxic goop and apply them to farms and gardens. And it depends because each batch of sewage sludge is different, based on which households, hospitals, and industries are contributing to the waste stream and what they've put down the drain that particular day or week.

For farmer Andy McElmurray, it depended that a Nutrasweet plant was dumping thallium (rat poison) - an unregulated contaminant in sewage sludge - into the waste stream. The thallium went from the sludge applied to his soil, to his forage crops, to his cows, and all the way to the milk he sold to grocery stores. He only found out about the hazards of sludge after an extensive investigation into why his cows were dropping dead one after the other. McElmurray and his dad both got sick from working around sludge, and the farm went out of business. Dairying isn't very profitable when your cows are all dead.

Fears notes the sludge industry's favorite talking point: We have all of this human waste, and what are we going to do with it? Well, what should we do with pesticides, perfluorinated compounds, and flame retardants? I don't know. I don't think there's a good answer. In the case of some of the most common flame retardants (PBDEs), the world's answer was to ban them in the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants. I think that's a step in the right direction. The problem is that "persistent" refers to the fact that this stuff doesn't break down. The answers to the sludge problem are upstream ones. We shouldn't make such toxic substances if we don't have a way to dispose of them. So, sure, it's a problem to figure out where to put all of the sewage sludge. But lying that it's safe and then selling it to unsuspecting gardeners ain't the answer.

Another favorite sludge talking point in the article is that manure, including human poop, is "the world's original fertilizer." And, sure, the Chinese were famous for using night soil as fertilizer (one reason why you don't see salads on the menu at Chinese restaurants... all the veggies are cooked in Chinese cuisine). But the pre-industrial Chinese were not manufacturing and mixing toxic chemicals in with their night soil.

So go ahead, Darryl Fears, put some class A biosolids in your mouth. Or, let's make it more pleasant... how about a carrot grown in them? Still wanna eat that?

Discuss :: (2 Comments)

LVL Contest: Make Your Own Sewage Sludge Jingle!

by: Jill Richardson

Mon Sep 06, 2010 at 00:59:43 AM PDT

Recall that activists have interfered with San Francisco's sewage sludge compost give-away program that was giving free "organic compost" to city residents until the program was ended this past March. Since then, the city made good on its promise to release test results showing which contaminants - if any - were found in the sludge compost, and at what concentrations. Shortly after they released their results, the newly-formed Food Rights Network (FRN) released its own data, showing that SF's sludge compost DID have some nasty stuff in it - namely, PBDEs, nonylphenols, and triclosan. (San Francisco's tests didn't test for those things.) When FRN released its test results and the story was picked up by CBS news, it was quite embarrassing for San Francisco.

Now, apparently, it's San Francisco's turn at bat. So what are they doing? PR, of course. They have a new jingle to remind people what goes down the toilet and what doesn't so that the resulting sewage sludge is clean and can be used as a fertilizer. "When it comes to your toilet: Remember 3 Ps - Poop, Paper and Pee - Give it to Me!" Catchy, huh?

Here's the thing... it's not the condoms and cotton swabs going down the toilet that are really the problem, when it comes to using sewage sludge as fertilizer. It's the industrial waste, hospital waste, and even household waste - including the various chemicals that humans excrete. For example, check out this nice list of pharmaceuticals frequently found in sewage sludge. A few of them can be traced to use in livestock, but most are human drugs. Sometimes, pharmaceuticals even make their way all the way into drinking water. I've spent the last week reading countless studies about how pharmaceuticals biodegrade and what happens to them in the environment. Quite often, drugs go right through humans and come out the other end. So do an awful lot of other chemicals. If you want data and numbers check out this CDC report. They measure human exposure to chemicals by what they find in our urine.

At any rate, I find this sewage jingle so entertaining, I'll mail a book about sustainable food (winner's choice of several - I'll give you a list of what I've got) to whoever can come up with the best jingle about using sewage sludge as fertilizer for food crops. If you can write a jingle, paste it in the comments here. I'll post a diary with all of the entries a week from today and let people vote on the winner. Multiple entries are allowed - the more, the better.

Full disclosure: I am being paid to write about sewage sludge by the Center for Media & Democracy. However, this contest is my own idea and my own work, independent of the work I am being paid to do.

Discuss :: (17 Comments)

Sewage Sludge in the New York Times!

by: Jill Richardson

Fri Aug 27, 2010 at 07:27:24 AM PDT

This is rare. Sewage sludge is getting the light of day in a major paper. Check out "Biosolids Tracking Efforts a Jumble of Research With No Clear Answers." For example:

In Decatur, Ala., chemical companies released perfluorinated compounds (PFCs) -- the stuff that makes up nonstick cookware and has been linked to thyroid defects in pregnant women and to cancer in wastewater treatment plant workers -- into the sewage system over a period of decades.

The local wastewater treatment plant, Decatur Utilities, collected sludge, which was then sprayed onto grazing lands over a period of 12 years. Tests in 2009 showed that the fields -- a grazing ground for cattle -- contained PFOA and PFOS. Both chemicals are highly persistent in the environment and accumulate in the body.

But then read the next paragraph:

Tests showed that other types of perfluorinated compounds were also present, but EPA does not have maximum safety limits for these, said Roberts. "We wouldn't participate if there wasn't some cause for concern," she said of continuing tests of water and people's blood in the region.

OK, wait - what? Toxic persistent chemicals were released into the environment, onto farm fields, and then said there was no cause for concern? And the justification is that the EPA doesn't have any maximum limit for how much of that toxic, persistent chemical you can have in sludge applied to land? Think about that. I'm sorry but just because the law was followed doesn't mean there's no risk to the environment and human health.

You've really got to read all four pages of the article to get the full story. If you just stop on page 2, you might get the impression that scientists think sludge is fine. Then again, if you can think for yourself, you might think that it's all really fucked up for any scientist to be okay with spreading sludge on land. The story tries to be "balanced" and unbiased. But it ends up with paragraphs like this one:

Nearly all scientists agree that sewage sludge can be beneficial if it is uncontaminated, as it is a rich source of phosphorus and nitrogen. It has two components -- bacteria naturally present in organic matter, which can be somewhat removed depending on how the sludge is processed; and heavy metals and chemicals such as any of the 11 flame retardants, 72 pharmaceuticals, 28 metals, 25 steroids and hormones, and others that EPA tested for in its 2009 national sludge survey. It can also contain chemicals that no one is looking for, any one of the 80,000 that are made in the United States.

Okay, so what they are saying is that it would be fine if it was uncontaminated, except it's TOTALLY contaminated with god knows what.

And check this out:

About 55 percent of sludge is applied in the United States on primarily grazing land. It is a multimillion-dollar industry in which utilities pay applier companies like Synagro to take the stuff and spray it on farmland as a potent fertilizer. They save money by avoiding costs of land filling or incineration. The farmer pays little or nothing.

There ya go. That's why they are doing it. Money. Not because it's safe. It's money. The article also tells about how little research there is on safety and any health harm caused by land application of sewage sludge, and the close ties between the sewage industry and government regulators. And surprise, surprise, there's "heavy lobbying" involved.

Discuss :: (14 Comments)

Sewage Sludge: "It'll Make Your Penis Smaller, But At Least You Won't Be Depressed"

by: Jill Richardson

Wed Aug 11, 2010 at 14:01:10 PM PDT

That's my new idea for a slogan advertising food grown in sewage sludge. As I've noted many times, I've been researching sewage sludge and the many chemicals commonly found in it. One that has been found in San Francisco's sewage sludge and in the sludge compost it gave out is DEHP, a phthalate blamed for making boys penises smaller if they are exposed prenatally. And another chemical commonly found in sewage sludge, fluoxetine is the active ingredient in Prozac. Still want to grow your food in this stuff?
Discuss :: (1 Comments)

More in the San Francisco Sludge Story

by: Jill Richardson

Tue Aug 10, 2010 at 22:15:47 PM PDT

Today was quite a day in the San Francisco sludge drama (see an INCREDIBLE report on it from CBS news here). Recall that San Francisco's Public Utility Commission gave away compost made from sewage sludge for several years, most recently in late 2009. They put this program on hold after a protest in March. In the latest installment of the story, San Francisco tested the sludge compost for 127 pollutants to "prove" that it was safe. They found some stuff in it - DDE and DDD (breakdown products of DDT), a phthalate called DEHP (a lovely chemical credited for making boys penises smaller if they are exposed while in their mothers' wombs), some dioxins, and a little bit of cyanide. They also found some heavy metals although none exceeded the legal limits for what is allowed in sludge. It's worth noting, however, that one of the metals they found was chromium, which is not regulated in sewage sludge used as fertilizer.

However, they did NOT test for flame retardants, even though tests done by the EPA as well as prior tests done of San Francisco's sewage sludge compost by the Center for Food Safety indicated that flame retardants were probably present. Nor did they test for triclosan or any other pharmaceuticals. Triclosan, which is itself a suspected endocrine disruptor and breaks down into dioxins, was found in most samples tested by the EPA, as were many other pharmaceuticals.

But, even though San Francisco didn't test for these things, the Food Rights Network did. And, not surprisingly, they found them - along with another chemical called nonylphenols. (I should note that I'm working with FRN and I am being paid for writing about this subject.)

I think it would be disingenuous not to mention that, aside from this sludge issue, what I'm learning is that we live in a very toxic world, and much of the toxins are man-made. Often they are also unnecessary. In the case of flame retardants, California has a law that requires excessive use of them, and Californians are therefore exposed to high levels of various flame retardant chemicals (many of which are toxic). I recommend checking out the Green Science Policy Institute for information on how we might prevent fires in a less toxic way.

About triclosan and another chemical, triclocarban, both are used in antibacterial soaps and other products, but studies find them to be no more effective than regular soap and water. So in that case, what the hell are we doing using them? Especially when so many of us have measurable levels of the chemicals in our bodies, and when triclosan and triclocarban in the soil makes it into the edible portions of the plants and thus gets into our diets. NRDC has just sued the FDA to ban these in soaps and body washes, so cross your fingers.

Sludge is more or less a catch-all for every sort of chemical we put down the drains in our homes, hospitals, and in industry. It's where it all comes out in the wash, unless it is somehow processed out of the sludge or released with effluent in the wastewater treatment plant. And I'm finding that the answer in many cases isn't just to dispose of sludge in a site suitable for toxic waste but also to stop using the toxins in the first place - particularly in the cases I've cited here where they aren't serving much purpose beyond getting into the environment and our bodies and causing trouble.

Discuss :: (3 Comments)

When Environmentalists Go Bad (and Tell Lies)

by: Jill Richardson

Thu Jul 08, 2010 at 18:17:39 PM PDT

Since 2007, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission has given away "free organic biosolids compost" to gardeners and school gardens in San Francisco. Of course, their "organic" compost could not be legally applied on an organic farm because its made of sewage sludge - what the sewage industry likes to euphemistically call "biosolids." Sewage sludge is minimally regulated by the EPA and its use as fertilizer for food crops has resulted in human and animal deaths in the past. Of course, usually it doesn't result in such acute toxicity, but those are the chances you take when you play with such a minimally regulated chemical soup.

I've told this story on this blog before, but there's a reason I'm bringing it up again: new revelations, discovered by the Food Rights Network. Until now, I've largely given the SFPUC the benefit of the doubt and took them at their word. I was wrong to do so.

The Vice President of SFPUC is Francesca Vietor, a famous environmentalist in the Bay Area. She's credited with influencing the city's adoption of the Precautionary Principle, which means treating nothing as safe until it is proven so. Yet SFPUC's sludge giveaways represent the very opposite of that: giving away a product of unidentified risks, closing your eyes, and hoping you don't get caught. (To date, the sludge "compost" giveaway program ran from 2007 until it was recently ended and, to the best of my knowledge, SFPUC is only now performing comprehensive testing on it to check for safety.)

When this scandal broke out, at first it seemed that Vietor could be the key to reforming SFPUC's sludge policies. Sadly, Vietor took the low road. Instead of doing the right thing and adding one more credential to her environmentalist resume, she lied, stonewalled, made legal threats, and covered her own - and SFPUC's - ass.

There's More... :: (13 Comments, 1211 words in story)

San Francisco is Testing Its Sludge For Safety

by: Jill Richardson

Tue Jun 29, 2010 at 22:46:03 PM PDT

Here's the response I received from the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission about their safety testing of their sludge compost that was given away free to San Francisco gardeners:

Thanks for your inquiry about the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC)'s Biosolids Compost Program. As you have mentioned on your email, the test results for the biosolids compost given away in fall 2009 posted online are the same reports that are printed and made available at each of our giveaway events. Repeated test results have shown the metal concentrations in the biosolids compost given away by the SFPUC were comparable to the compost found in a gardening store.  The testing standards and test results must meet compliance standards set through the EPA's Part 503 Rule.

The nine pollutants regulated by EPA's Part 503 Rule were selected after a 1984 Risk Assessment that included more than 200 inorganic and organic pollutants.  In order to responsibly regulate a pollutant certain information must be available in order to conduct a risk assessment. Such information includes toxicity, fate and transport (from within the biosolids matrix preferably), reasonable routes of exposure, and the dose to which the subject would be exposed. For those 200 pollutants, a hazard quotient (HQ) was calculated which is a measure for potential adverse effects to public health or the environment. Some 25 pollutants had a HQ of greater than one, which called for a full effect characterization through a comprehensive risk assessment. Fourteen pathways of exposure were evaluated with numerous conservative assumptions built in through which it was ensured that all reasonably anticipated adverse effects were captured. Ten pollutants were determined to be necessary to regulate (later reduced to nine in 2001).

The SFPUC is currently undertaking a comprehensive test of our biosolids compost, including heavy metals and pollutants of concern. In an effort to be completely transparent, these tests go above and beyond any current regulatory requirements for either biosolids compost or what is readily available as soil amendment from commercial gardening stores.

Our test results will be available to the public as soon as they are completed.  I hope this information helps you in the meantime.  Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions or need additional information.

I'd like to call out a gaping flaw that appears in the EPA's method of determining what to regulate in sludge as it is described here. There are literally tens of thousands of chemicals that can show up in sludge. Testing a mere 200 of them can hardly guarantee the safety of sludge. And the proof for that is in the pudding - when Andy McElmurray applied sewage sludge from Augusta, GA on his fields where he grew crops to feed his cows, the cows died. McElmurray went out of business. And milk was sold in the supermarket with high levels of thallium - a rat poison - in them. Thallium is NOT one of the chemicals that the EPA deemed hazardous enough to regulate. And it's not even a common chemical found in sludge, to the best of my knowledge. But that doesn't mean that it's never found in sludge or that the regulations keep us safe from it.

On another note, I'm encouraged that SFPUC promises to make its results fully available to the public once they are complete. However, it's been MONTHS since they supposedly initiated this testing. How long does it take? And what are they doing that requires so long? Shopping around for a lab that gives them the results they want? Sending back positive results for re-testing until they come back negative? Or, on the other hand, are they really doing the world's most complete testing of their sludge compost to ensure that it's 100% safe for applications in gardens where food is produced? I hope it's the latter.

Discuss :: (4 Comments)

San Francisco Has to Do More to Prove Their Sludge is Safe

by: Jill Richardson

Sun Jun 27, 2010 at 21:01:03 PM PDT

San Francisco's Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) promised to test its "biosolids compost" (i.e. sludge from 9 counties mixed with yard waste and composted) for safety. That was great news. But the results are less than stellar.

Along with a long list of letters (mostly from the sludge lobby) praising its sludge giveaway program, they show test results for a few heavy metals and fecal coliform. Even though sludge contains tens of thousands of chemicals and organisms, the EPA only regulates 10. And that's exactly what they tested for. The problem? The biggest danger in sludge isn't (usually) those 10 regulated toxins. After all, they are regulated! The problem comes from the countless OTHER toxins and pathogens that can occur in sludge.

There's More... :: (1 Comments, 250 words in story)

Why I Don't Love Sewage Sludge

by: Jill Richardson

Thu Jun 10, 2010 at 20:21:41 PM PDT

The Seattle PI has a blog post called "Why I Love Biosolids." I'm including excerpts below, with my own commentary.

In the last few weeks several people have come to me asking about the safety of biosolids-use in their home gardens, and moreover, have asked why I advocate the use of biosolids. In short, biosolids composts are safe, highly-regulated, sustainable, climate-friendly products, that your plants will LOVE. They are high in nutrients, support healthy soil microbial communities, and improve the tilth (physical attributes) of soil. Farmers around the world, including US farmers, have known this for ages.

Wow. Where do I start? Safe, no. Highly-regulated, NO. Healthy soil microbial communities? OK, "biosolids" (sewage sludge - let's call it what it is) can contain antibiotic-resistant bacteria and parasites... you call that healthy?

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Oh Alice, Don't Let Them Do This To You

by: Jill Richardson

Mon Apr 12, 2010 at 21:34:15 PM PDT

Oh lord, now an industry astroturf group (the American Council on Science and Health) is expressing their schadenfreude over Alice Waters' refusal to renounce growing any food in sewage sludge. And there's one thing they have right (which is one more than usual): Alice Waters IS a hero of the sustainable food movement.

But here's the full statement they made:

"I have to admit to some schadenfreude when the organic, 'environmentalist' crowd turns on itself," says Stier. "Ms. Waters was a hero of the sustainable food movement, but now they are turning on her because of very low levels of heavy metals in this compost, less even than you'd get from a vitamin supplement. The irony, of course, is that using biosolids is a wonderfully environmentalist thing to do, since it safely recycles waste materials; the 'environmentalists' are on the wrong side of this environmental issue."

They are congratulating Waters because using sewage sludge is a "wonderfully environmentalist" thing to do?? Alice, please, these people still think DDT should be legal. Don't let them count you as being on their side. It hurts me to see Alice Waters used like this.

(As for those heavy metals... they've done a nice job cherry-picking the ONE class of toxins in sewage sludge that is somewhat regulated. Sure, sludge might not have too much lead in it... but how about flame retardants, dioxins, pharmaceuticals, and phthalates?)

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