Basic Information

When The Sludge Hits The Fan

What is sludge? Why should you care?
Sludge Field

For just one moment, think of everything that gets flushed or rinsed down the drain in your home. In America, we don't separate our household and industrial waste so all the human waste, cleaners, poisons, soaps, and pharmaceutical combine with the waste of every business, industry, school and hospital to create a toxic stew that collects at one of over 16,000 waste water treatment plants (WWTP). Include in this mix the leachates from landfills, Superfund sites, and other industrial clean-up projects. This is sewage. The role of the WWTP is to separate the sewage solids from the liquids after treating with chemicals, minerals, squeezing and heating in order to release the water back into our communities. The solid by-product remaining after the water is removed from the sewage is called sludge. Sludge is tested for arsenic, cadmium, copper, lead, mercury, molybdenum, nickel, selenium, and zinc - the nine elements that the EPA requires for testing to determine if it is "safe" to apply to the land that supplies our food and the source of our water. Half of the 7 million tons of sewage sludge created annually in America is land applied.

Of the thousands of chemicals, pathogens, heavy metals, pharmaceuticals, and bacteria compressed into sludge, testing varies from once a month to once a year, depending on the size of the WWTP. Although the EPA then classifies Class A sludge as "pathogen free" and Class B sludge as "pathogen-reduced" (based on only nine elements) no substantial studies have EVER been conducted by federal, state, or local officials to determine if sludge is safe to for human use. Municipalities pay a hefty sum for sewage haulers to dispose of the sludge, with some of the largest sewage disposal companies making over five hundred million dollars annually to find a place to throw Americas sewage waste. And by changing their name from 'Federation of Sewage Workers Association" to the cozier, "Water Environmental Federation" and calling sludge "biosolids" the industry who is paid to remove our waste from the communities of American has quietly eased its way onto our open space and farmlands.

So, what happens to all that sludge? Since ocean dumping was stopped in the United States by environmental groups in the 1980's, because of the dead zones the sludge created in our oceans, disposal options most often used in America include landfill, incineration, and "land application". What is "land application"? Because of measurable amounts of elements like nitrogen and phosphorous, the sludge industry and government bodies overlook the toxins in sludge and market the sewage by-product as fertilizer. Class A sludge is spread in our parks, golf courses, playgrounds, and forests and sold to the gardening public as bagged fertilizer. The amount of sludge that is land applied varies from state to state depending on how strict the laws are.

Class A sludge is marketed, and delivered free of charge, to thousands of farmers in 26 states as a fertilizer option. As the price of fuel and petroleum based fertilizers squeeze farm budgets, and farmers are only told of the benefits of free sludge, the temptation to apply sludge to farmland increases. Food crops may be grown in fields treated with Class A sludge without testing the products for levels of pathogens, heavy metals, or pharmaceuticals in spite of the fact that plants uptake nutrients and toxins from the soil. Meat and dairy animals may graze in fields treated with Class A sludge without testing the product in spite of the fact that heavy metals, hormone mimickers and chemicals collect in muscle and fat tissue.

In most states, the generator of the sludge is required to obtain a permit to spread sludge on farm fields. Farmers or landowners who use the Class B sludge are required to prepare and implement a Farm Conservation Plan with the appropriate Best Management practices approved by the County Conservation District. All of these terms sound great, but �permitting� toxic waste to be poured on our food and water does nothing to protect our health, safety, food or future. If you can farm it, you can sludge it. Depending on the size of the waste water treatment plant, testing of sludge is required once a month to once a year. Food products must maintain a waiting period between the time of sludging and growing, while non-food products may be grown directly on Class B sludged land. Although easily ignored, the nutrient/toxin uptake in products like hay or cotton should not be underestimated. Hay products are fed to meat animals and livestock or used to grow food products and cotton seed is used to create food quality oil. Again, testing is done to �prove� the nutrient value of sludge for plants, but no substantial scientific studies has been done on the hazards or safety of sludge on human health. While towns and cities struggle to control high levels of toxins, bacteria and hormone mimickers in their municipal water supply and homeowner�s private wells come up polluted, suspicions turn to the corporate sludging industries, which shrug shoulders and say, �Prove it!� There is no state or national data collection of health or safety concerns from citizens and communities that are forced to accept sewage sludge.

Plants aren't the only thing growing from sludge. Illnesses and health problems -including nausea, vomiting, burning eyes, congestion, various infections, and respiratory problems - have been recorded and continue to grow in communities throughout the country. Three deaths are linked to land application of sludge. When the sludge is dry, and the dust can be inhaled by any resident or passing commuter, the smell is relatively mild. When the rains come or the sludge is wet the smell, akin to rotting flesh, can gag the sturdiest stomach or instigate asthma attacks in adults and children. Every community surrounded by sludged properties, struggles to protect themselves. Elected officials and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are unwilling to change the laws that allow and promote the relentless flinging of Americas toxic goo on lands that provide our food and water. Sludge is not a farm or environmental issue - sludge is a health and safety issue.

Even those who do not live in farm communities question the safety of our food and water supply. When our meats are tainted, our tomatoes are laced with salmonella, our spinach is rife with E. Coli and milk from one Georgia farmer tested 120 higher than legal limit for thallium - a substance found in rat poison - America is beginning to recognize that something is seriously wrong. Scientific studies and warnings are ignored or changed to support a system that encourages pollution transfer on a massive scale, at the detriment of America's health and democracy. Should we be fighting to prove that we are being poisoned by an obvious pollution source or should we be re-evaluating our sewage sludge disposal options as an alternative energy source? Asking serious questions about responsibilities of our disposal system and its connection to our food and water sources is just the beginning of recognizing our role in what happens next to our health, wealth and happiness. Are you ready to get involved? What is your food and water safety worth? What future will our children inherit?

Smart Guide on Sludge Use and Food Production

Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy's comprehensive, approachable and well-referenced overview about the concerns of land application of sewage sludge: What's in sludge? How can contaminants from sludge end up in our food? What's the concern? What is the Government's role and What Can You Do? The best 'one-stop' paper on the concerns of sewage sludge to the health and safety of our food, water and communities. (pdf)

Potential Health Impact of Certain Persistent and Other Chemicals Detected in Sludge

Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy chart linking health impacts and the chemically associated with their exposure. (pdf)

Crapshoot: the Gamble with Our Wastes

The National Film Board of Canada has an award-winning 52 minute documentary on sewage and sludge. A hazardous mix of waste is flushed into the sewer every day. The billions of litres of water - combined with unknown quantities of chemicals, solvents, heavy metals, human waste and food - where does it all go? And what does it do to us? The entire film is now available for viewing free on the internet on the NFB website.

The Dirty Work of 'Recycling' America's Sewage Sludge

Cornerstone work by Caroline Snyder, Ph.D., investigating the serious illnesses, including deaths, and adverse environmental impacts linked to land application of sewage sludge. In depth investigation of the link between the US EPA, the wastewater treatment industry and Congress to fund industry-friendly scientists and discouraging independent research, to prevent local governments from restricting land application and to thwart litigation against municipalities and the industry. (pdf)

Sludge Happens

Josh Harkinson of Mother Jones Magazine looks at the issues. In theory, recycling poop is the perfect solution to the one truly unavoidable byproduct of human civilization. But as sludge has spread across the country, so have concerns that it may cause as many environmental problems as it solves. Read article

Crap Happens: A Grist Special Report on How We Dispose of Our Poop - A Grist Special Series

Catherine Price's four-part series on sludge fertilizer. Grab some extra toilet paper and get ready for some straight poop on poop including: "Sludge, farmer�s friend or toxic slime?", "Regulating biosolids", "Businesses struggle to profit from sewage sludge", and "For some eco-pioneers, solving the sludge problem means getting their hands dirty." Read articles

Raking through Sludge Exposed a Stink

Jeff Tollefson of Nature News Magazine explores questions that remain about sludge's impact on human and animal health - the program has been the subject of multiple lawsuits for more than a decade - including law suits by an EPA whistleblower and two Georgia dairy farmers who lost their farms. (pdf)

Basic Talking Points

Quick talking points prepared by USFA to get you started and involved. (pdf)

USFA Suggested Reading

Our suggested reading of articles found on our website for an overview of the many concerning challenges of sewage sludge use. (pdf)

Downloadable version of "When the Sludge Hits the Fan" (pdf)