TAKE ACTION: Demand Your Right to Know About Toxic Sewage Sludge!

Sewage sludge: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) euphemistically calls it “biosolids.” But what is it really? And why should you care?

As this article explains, sewage sludge is:

. . . whatever goes into the sewer system and emerges as solids from municipal wastewater treatment plants. Sludge can be (its exact composition varies and is not knowable) any of the 80,000 synthetic chemicals used by industry; new chemicals created from combining two or more of those 80,000; bacteria and viruses; hospital waste; runoff from roads; pharmaceuticals and over-the-counter drugs; detergents and chemicals that are put down drains in residences; and, of course, urine and feces flushed down toilets. 

This toxic stew is sold to farmers who use it to fertilize food crops—a fact most consumers don’t know, because food producers and retailers aren’t required to tell you.

TAKE ACTION: Ask your Member of Congress to cosponsor the Sewage Sludge in Food Production Consumer Notification Act

aerial view of sewage treatment plant pools

According to an EPA study published in 2009, all sewage sludge contains toxic and hazardous substances, including endocrine disruptors. Still, the EPA allows municipalities to sell sludge to farmers. For decades, the EPA maintained that “Toxic Sludge Is Good for You,” and propped up this claim by citing a 2002 National Research Council of the National Academies report that concluded: 

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.

But in a rare move, the EPA walked back its endorsement following a July 2018 investigation by the agency’s Office of the Inspector General. The EPA’s new position is this:

Additional scientific work is needed to reduce persistent uncertainty about the potential for adverse human health effects from exposure to biosolids. In a rare move, the Environmental Protection Agency recently walked back its support for the industry’s claim that “Toxic Sludge Is Good for You.” 

In November, the OIG published a new report: “EPA Unable to Assess the Impact of Hundreds of Unregulated Pollutants in Land-Applied Biosolids on Human Health and the Environment.” In it, the OIG complained that the EPA isn’t making the public aware that “potentially harmful and unregulated pollutants,”  such as pharmaceuticals, steroids and flame retardants, are present in biosolid.

To remedy this situation, the OIG recommends “a label be put on the biosolids container sold or given away for application to the land, or an information sheet be provided to the person who receives the biosolids sold or given away.”

That recommendation is a start. But it doesn’t go far enough, because the labels would be seen only by the farmers or others applying the sludge, not consumers. That’s why we need the Sewage Sludge in Food Production Consumer Notification Act.

Congressman Jose Serrano (D-N.Y.) introduced the bill (H.R. 2064) which would require the food industry to label products that have been grown in farmlands that use sewage sludge as fertilizer. On his Facebook page, Serrano said:

“Americans need to know where and how their food was grown so that they can make informed decisions when buying food products, especially if the fertilizer used to grow that food contains varying degrees of pathogens, heavy metals, organic chemicals, industrial solvents, asbestos, and radioactive waste. It is time to make sure that federal law adequately protects consumers from sewage sludge that is being used as fertilizer.”

If you buy USDA certified organic, you don’t have to worry—the use of sewage sludge in organic food production is prohibited. But in the interest of food safety and environmental stewardship, please ask your member of Congress to support everyone’s right to know if their food has been produced with sewage sludge.

Personal Information