Biosolids and Compost

Last week, the Organic Consumers Association took a stand outside the mayor’s office in San Francisco to protest the city’s recent free composting program. (Read the article from their site here). It might sound like an odd thing to protest, especially with all the amazing benefits of composting. The national group chose San Francisco to demonstrate against since it is one of the most “green” cities in the U.S. and they felt that it would reach the best audience.

This group claims that the compost that was handed out “usually includes a number of heavy metals, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, pharmaceuticals, steroids, flame-retardants, bacteria (including antibiotic-resistant bacteria), fungi, parasites and viruses.” They cite an EPA survey that found heavy metals, steroids, anions, and pharmaceuticals in the biosolids from around the country

Many local governments have adopted the practice of turning biosolids into fertilizer to be sold or handed out for free. A biosolid is made from treated and processed sewage. The EPA claims that these biosolids contain “nutrient-rich organic materials”. Be careful to realize that when they say organic here, they do not mean certified organic, but organic as in organic chemistry. Read more about biosolids on the EPA’s website.

The reasoning for taking sewage and turning it into biosolids for farms and gardens sounds compelling at first glance. In the past, this sewage was dumped straight into lakes, streams, and other natural water sources. This puts disease-causing organisms into our oceans and streams as well as other pollutants.  The micro-organisms that enter the waters through dumping raw sewage require a high amount of oxygen which depletes the waters oxygen content, killing off larger organisms.

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Keeping it out of our natural water resources is good, but the current solution of converting to biosolids for fertilizer, isn’t good enough. While it is imperative to keep the sewage out of our oceans, lakes and streams, that does not mean that it is acceptable to dispose of it in other ways that may be harmful to the environment. Our aim should be to find a truly eco-friendly solution that doesn’t overcome one loss just to take on another.

It’s important to keep in mind that the practice of converting biosolids from sewage waste, to be used for fertilizer or compost, is completely legal and supported by the Environmental Protection Agency. If you feel these practices are wrong or harmful to the environment get involved by writing to your local legislature, or joining your local environmental grassroots organizations. Even the little things you do can make a difference and it is important to speak up about the things you believe in and see that changes are made.

For now however, it may be a better idea to stick to composting at home. There are many options available that make composting a reality whether you live in a house with a yard, or an apartment. Many local gardening groups may even hold free composting classes to help acquaint you with the ins and outs of proper composting.

Comments 6

  1. The US EPA and waste industry are promoting the landspreading of Class B sewage sludge containing infectious human and animal prions on grazing lands, hay fields, and dairy pastures. This puts livestock and wildlife at risk of infection. They ingest large quantities of dirt and top dressed sludge with their fodder.

    Prion infected Class A sludge “biosolids” compost is spread in parks, playgrounds, home lawns, flower and vegetable gardens – putting humans, family pets, and children with their undeveloped immune systems and hand-to-mouth “eat dirt” behavior at risk. University of Wisconsin prion researchers, working with $100,000 EPA grant and a $5 million Dept. of Defense grant, have found that prions become 680 times more infectious in certain types of soil. Prions can survive for over 3 years in soils. And human prions are 100,000 times more difficult to inactivate than animal prions

    Recently, researchers at UC Santa Cruz, and elsewhere, announced that Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) is a prion disease. “Prion” = proteinaceous infectious particle which causes always fatal TSEs (Transmissible spongiform encephalopathies) in humans and animals including BSE (Mad Cow Disease), scrapie in sheep and goats, and Chronic Wasting Disease in deer, elk and moose. Human prion diseases are AD and CJD (Creutzfeldt Jakob Disease,) and other rarer maladies. Infectious prions have been found in human and animal muscle tissue including heart, saliva, blood, urine, feces and many other organs.

    Alzheimer’s rates are soaring as Babyboomers age – there are now over 5.3 million AD victims in US shedding infectious prions in their blood, urine and feces, into public sewers. This Alzheimer’s epidemic has almost 500,000 new victims each year. No sewage treatment process inactivates prions – they are practically indestructible. The wastewater treatment process reconcentrates the infectious prions in the sewage sludge.

    Quotes from Dr. Joel Pedersen, Univ. of Wisconsin, on his prion research:

    Our results suggest that if prions were to enter municipal waste water treatment systems, most of the agent would partition to activated sludge solids, survive mesophilic anaerobic digestion, and be present in
    treated biosolids. Land application of biosolids containing prions could represent a route for their unintentional introduction into the environment. Our results argue for excluding inputs of prions to municipal wastewater treatment.”

    “Prions could end up in wastewater treatment plants via slaughterhouse drains, hunted game cleaned in a sink, or humans with vCJD shedding prions in their urine or faeces, Pedersen says”
    (Note – This UW research was conducted BEFORE UCSC scientists determined that Alzheimer’s Disease is another prion disease which may be shedding infectious prions into public sewers and Class B and Class A sludge “biosolids.)

    Helane Shields, Alton, NH 03809

    Infectious prions in sludge “biosolids”

  2. If a beneficial use for biosolids is not found, then they will have to go one of 3 places: in or on the ground, in the water, or in the air (by incineration). In my opinion, it would be much better to be aware of the contaminants in this waste stream so that they may be addressed. We can incrementally weed them out at the source (heavy metals & synthetic organics) or find methods making them inert (contagious contaminants) before composting and land application. It would be more socially difficult, but more ecologically sound to make this solid waste stream safe for composting. The solution, however, is not boycotting its use and committing it to landfills.

    1. Amanda,

      Thanks for your comments, I agree fully with your statement. I believe the point of the rally (at least I hope) was to alert consumers to the contents of the compost mulch that the city was providing, so as not to use it in vegetable gardens. It would also be worrisome if it was utilized by local or commercial growers to fertilize their crops. Ideally this would be used for landscaping purposes, to fertilize non food sources and therefore being mutually beneficial to the environment and landfills.

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