Biosolid is the commonly used term for treated recycled sewage sludge used as agricultural fertilizer. In this video interview with microbiologist David Lewis, Ph.D., he discusses information he uncovered in three decades working for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Lewis, a former senior-level research microbiologist at EPA-ORD, was terminated for publishing an article that raised concerns over the EPA 503 sludge rule. The rule addresses the standards to be used when sludge is applied to the land. 1
In his article, 2 Lewis blew the whistle on corruption and conflict of interest at the EPA causing industrial waste and toxins to be added into fertilizer that is then applied to farm land and added to potting soil.
In his book, “Science for Sale: How the US Government Uses Powerful Corporations and Leading Universities to Support Government Policies, Silence Top Scientists, Jeopardize Our Health, and Protect Corporate Profits,” he elaborates on the enormous conflict of interest between U.S. industry and federal regulatory agencies allowing toxins to be quite literally spread on the land all-around the U.S.
Solution of Eliminating Human Waste Corrupted by Industrial Waste
The practice of using biosolids began when it became clear how dumping the sludge directly into waterways was damaging the environment. 3 After the Cuyahoga River outside Cleveland, Ohio, caught on fire in 1969 4 as a result of high levels of pollution, the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act were enacted.
President Richard Nixon also created the EPA to regulate the air and water and protect human health. Looking for another avenue to dispose of the waste, industry turned to municipal wastewater treatment plants .
Organic waste commonly used in biosolids includes human waste product and industrial waste delivered to municipal treatment plants. If human waste were the only product returned to the soil, it would complete the cycle of regenerative agriculture, returning nitrogen and phosphorus back into the soil.
However, the industrial waste corrupts the process by concentrating toxins, which are then spread as fertilizer onto agricultural lands, parklands, golf courses, lawns and cemeteries. Biosolids are also used in mine reclamation, to cover inactive landfills, or to add layers in active landfills. 5
Although the U.S. Inspector General believes the EPA controls are incomplete and may have failed to protect human health when regulating biosolids, 6 according to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality: 7
“Biosolids are one of the most studied materials that have ever been regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA). Decades of studies have demonstrated that biosolids can be safely used for the production of crops.
The National Academy of Sciences has reviewed current practices, public health concerns, and regulator standards and has concluded that “the use of these materials in the production of crops for human consumption when practiced in accordance with existing federal guidelines and regulations, presents negligible risk to the consumer, to crop production and to the environment.”
EPA Unsure of Biosolid Safety
As Lewis describes in the video, none of the toxic organic chemicals regulated by the EPA is monitored in sewage sludge and only nine of 27 toxic heavy metals are monitored. According to a recently-published investigation by the Office of Inspector General, a broad list of potential threats have not been evaluated.
The agency has identified 352 chemical pollutants making their way out of wastewater treatment plants in treated biosolids, including pesticides, pharmaceuticals and solvents. 8 Of these, 61 are listed as hazardous materials with known human effects. However, to date the EPA has not completed a risk assessment for any.
The industry argument is that 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 they can be washed into local water sources, ending up in the food chain. 9
As Lewis explains, once these chemicals have dissolved in fat they bioaccumulate and can become neurotoxic. According to the EPA, nearly half of the biosolids generated in the U.S. are ultimately applied to populated areas. The other half may be sent to incinerators or landfills. 10
While the EPA has consistently monitored biosolids for nine regulated substances, they lack any data to determine the safety of hundreds of others found in the material.
The EPA formally responded to the Inspector General's office, attempting to negate the potential effects on human health, saying, 11 “The occurrence of pollutants and biosolids does not necessarily mean that those pollutants pose a risk to public health and the environment.”
The city of Lacrosse, Wisconsin, located on the Mississippi River, reportedly dumps 12 million gallons of biosolids a year on surrounding fields. 12 The city does not test wastewater or solids for emerging contaminants, including those mentioned by the inspector general in its audit.
Reminiscent of comments made after widespread lead contamination in water supplying Flint, Michigan, was discovered, 13 Jared Greeno, wastewater treatment plant superintendent, said: 14 “At this time, we're not required by DNR, so we haven't done those tests.”
How Industrial Pollution Moved From Waterways to Farmland
Lewis recalls the old slogan, “The solution to pollution is dilution,” used to describe why industrial wastewater was pumped directly into streams and rivers, for eventual dilution in the oceans.
Today, the process of using biosolids spreads pollution on golf courses, school grounds and farmlands, concentrating the toxins’ effects and exposing large vulnerable populations to concentrated hazardous material.
After publishing a commentary in Nature, one of the most prestigious science journals, Lewis was interviewed by a journalist from The Atlanta Journal Constitution, during which he said the EPA may be doing more damage than good to human health. He then questioned EPA field scientists around the country about their opinion of how the EPA sludge rule protected health.
The overwhelming response was that field scientists had unanimously warned EPA headquarters the 503 sludge rule was a bad decision. Lewis recalls at the time the EPA had partnered with the largest treatment plant trade organization, the Water Environment Federation. The collaborative effort poured money into promoting studies to support the 503 rule.
This industry-funded body of “evidence” is now known by EPA scientists as “Sludge Magic.” The same chemicals the EPA calls “priority pollutants” — which by definition trigger human health effects and are environmentally persistent — are concentrated in biosolids and spread through the environment when industrial wastewater is pumped into municipal sewage treatment plants and added to the biosolid mix.
Biosolids Application Has a Massive Impact on Crops and Waterways
The addition of massive amounts of biosolids containing nitrogen and phosphorus combined with other nitrogen-rich fertilizers have likely contributed to algae blooms along the coast of Florida. 15 Unfortunately, many of the southern states experience greater use of biosolids as they accept excrement exported from other cities.
For instance, a train, nicknamed “the poop train,” filled with biosolids originating from New York City was stranded in a small town in Alabama for nearly two months. 16 As New York has strict dumping laws, they ship their biosolids south. Many southern states have lax laws, which explains why Georgia, Alabama and neighboring states have accumulated waste in the past several years.
The train was originally bound for Big Sky landfill, 20 miles east of Parrish, Alabama. Although the landfill had taken sewage from New York since 2017, the nearby town of Jefferson sought an injunction on the grounds the biosolids caused the town to be infested with flies and smell like dead rotting animals.
After two months, the biosolids were removed from the train by the truckload and transported to a landfill. 17 In a study from the University of York in the United Kingdom, 18 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 the sunlight, and at higher concentrations the research team saw a drop in the leaves’ levels of chlorophyll. At higher concentrations, the plants also experienced stunted roots and burnt edges on the leaves. 19
Though the team thought the discoloration was from a nutrient deficiency, they found instead the plants had absorbed higher levels of nutrients that were essentially poisoning the plants.
Protect Yourself and Your Family
If you grow vegetables in your garden and want to avoid toxins contained in biosolids, your best bet is to buy organic potting soil and/or compost from a local nursery you know and trust, that can guarantee no biosolids have been added.
Unfortunately, companies do not have to disclose when biosolids are used, so there’s really no way of knowing what’s in your bag of potting soil or compost. Composted products can have the USDA organic label on them, and still be loaded with toxic biosolids. If you see "milogranite" on the label, it contains biosolids from the City of Milwaukee — a national distributor.
Another alternative is to make your own using a composting bin or wood chips. For a full explanation of how to compost, see my previous article, " How to Properly Compost and Recycle ."
A recent report25 published by the Environmental Integrity Project found that 3 in 4 American meat processing plants that discharge nitrogen waste into local waterways have violated the pollution limits of their federal Clean Water Act permits at least once between January 1, 2016, and June 30, 2018.