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WARNING! Sewage sludge is toxic. Food should not be grown in "biosolids." Join the Food Rights Network.


This article is part of the Food Rights Network, a project of the Center for Media and Democracy. Find out more here.

Biosolids is the Orwellian PR euphemism for toxic sewage sludge. The name was created and chosen in a PR contest by the lobby association for sewage industry, the Water Environment Federation (WEF). For more background see also The EPA's plan to bypass opposition to sewage sludge disposal and You say biosolids, I say sewage sludge. There is now a SourceWatch Portal on "Biosolids" Beyond biosolids, the sewage sludge industry now puts its waste product into bags labeled "compost" and promotes them through US Composting Council, BioCycle and other front groups and partners.

Beginning in the 1990's the WEF, with the active encouragement and approval of the Environmental Protection Agency, pushed for the disposal of sewage sludge on farm land after bans were imposed on dumping it in the ocean or incinerating it. The name change of sewage sludge to "biosolids" was crucial the image makeover for sewage sludge, a classic industry-government campaign of greenwashing to change the public perception of toxic sewage sludge from an accurate one of "hazardous waste" to the misleading image of biosolids representing safe "beneficial reuse," responsible "recycling" and healthy "organic fertilizer," lately including the ruse of sewage sludge as "organic compost."

A list of just some of the hazardous chemicals and pathogens found in sludge can be found in the article Sludge contaminants. Sludge contaminants include Dioxins and Furans, Flame Retardants, Metals, Organochlorine Pesticides, 1,2-Dibromo-3-Chloropropane (DBCP), Naphthalene, Triclosan, Nonylphenols, Phthalates, Nanosilver, and thousands more substances. "Sewage is the mix of water and whatever wastes from domestic and industrial life are flushed into the sewer. ... We must note that, though the aim of sewage treatment is to produce clean water, it is never to produce 'clean' sludge. Indeed, the 'dirtier' the sludge - the more complete its concentration of the noxious wastes - the more the treatment has done its job. ... very waste produced in our society that can be got rid of down toilets and drains and that can also be got out of the sewage by a given treatment process will be in the sludge. Sludge is thus inevitably a noxious brew of vastly various and incompatible materials unpredictable in themselves and in the toxicity of their amalgamation, incalculably but certainly wildly dangerous to life." [1]

Toxic Sewage Sludge Given Away as "Organic Biosolids Compost"

In 2009 a major controversy erupted in San Francisco when the Center for Food Safety and the Organic Consumers Association called on the SFPUC to end its give-away of toxic sewage sludge as free "organic biosolids compost" to gardeners. A March 4, 2010, demonstration at City Hall by the OCA forced a temporary halt to the program. (See articles below)[2] [3][4][5] [6] The misleading labeled "organic compost," which the PUC has given away free to gardeners since 2007, is composed of toxic sewage sludge from San Francisco and eight other counties. Very little toxicity testing has been done, but what little has been done is alarming. Just the sludge from San Francisco alone has tested positive for 1,2-Dibromo-3-Chloropropane (a.k.a. DBCP), Isopropyltoluene (a.k.a. p-cymene or p-isopropyltoluene), Dioxins and Furans. [7]

2010 Tests of San Francisco Sewage Sludge Find PBDEs, Triclosan

On August 10, 2010, the Food Rights Network announced in a news release that "Independent tests of sewage sludge-derived compost from the Synagro CVC plant -- distributed free to gardeners since 2007 by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission in their "organic biosolids compost" giveaway program -- have found appreciable concentrations of contaminants with endocrine-disruptive properties. The independent tests were conducted for the Food Rights Networkby Dr. Robert C. Hale of the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences."

In an August 6, 2010, letter reporting on his findings to the Food Rights Network Robert Hale wrote: "A sewage sludge-derived compost from the Synagro CVC plant, distributed by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission in their "compost give away" program, was analyzed for synthetic pollutants. Several classes of emerging contaminants with endocrine disruptive properties were detected in appreciable concentrations, including polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE) flame retardants, nonylphenols (NPs) detergent breakdown products and the antibacterial agent triclosan." PDFs are attached here of the letter and the data: [8] [9] [10] [11]

"Toxic Sludge Is Good For You!"

Authors John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton tell the history of the word "biosolids" in their 1995 book Toxic Sludge is Good for You.

  • "The (Water Environment Federation's) proposal to create a 'Name Change Task Force' originated with Peter Machno, manager of Seattle's sludge program, after protesters mobilized against his plan to spread sludge on local tree farms. 'If I knocked on your door and said I've got this beneficial product called sludge, what are you going to say?' he asked. At Machno's suggestion, the Federation newsletter published a request for alternative names. Members sent in over 250 suggestions including 'all growth,' 'purenutri,' 'biolife,' 'bioslurp,' 'blackgold,' 'geoslime,' 'sca-doo,' 'the end product,' 'humanure,' 'hu-doo,' 'organic residuals,' 'bioresidue,' 'urban biomass,' 'powergro,' 'organite,' 'recylite,' nutricake,' and 'ROSE,' short for 'recycling of solids environmentally.' In June of 1991 the Name Change Task Force fnally settled on 'biosolids,' which it defined as 'the nutrient-rich organic byproduct of the nation's wastewater treatment process.'" [12]

Downplaying risks

"There's no doubt that people have been harmed by sewage sludge, but I don't know of any cases where it's been proved beyond a doubt," says Stanford Tackett, a chemist and lead expert.

Tackett's seemingly contradictory statement captures the scientific loophole that PR practitioners use routinely to cover up health hazards. Scientific "proof" is something achieved under laboratory conditions with strict control of all variables. In the real world, those controlled laboratory conditions do not exist.

As an example, Tackett cites a case in Oklahoma where a farmer fed hay grown on sludge-fertilized land to his miniature horses. After nine horses died and 113 others developed liver problems, the farmer took his case to veterinarians at the University of Oklahoma, who tested the hay and found high levels of heavy metals from sludge. Heavy metals are known to cause problems similar to those the horses had experienced. They fed the hay to a healthy horse, and it promptly developed the same problems as the other horses.

"Even in that case, the sludge promoters were able to claim in court that there's no scientific proof that sludge caused the deaths of the horses," Tackett said. "In a strict scientific sense, they're correct." In the real world, however, a rational person can reasonably conclude that sludge was the most likely cause of death, and a reasonable person would want to avoid eating food raised on sludge-fertilized land.

The PR campaign surrounding sludge is aimed at keeping people unaware that sludge is being used as fertilizer so they cannot make informed decisions about its risks. Milorganite fertilizer, for example, is sold in all 50 states in bags describing it as a natural "organic fertilizer." Small print at the bottom of the bag states that it is "produced only by Milorganite Division--MMSD." Outside Milwaukee, very few people know that "MMSD" stands for "Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District," and that they are spreading sewage sludge on their lawns and gardens.


Other SourceWatch Articles

PRWatch Articles

External Resources

Case Studies


  1. About Sewage Sludge,, Accessed June 18, 2010.
  2. Heather Knight, Nonprofit calls PUC's compost toxic sludge, San Francisco Chronicle, September 27, 2009.
  3. Barry Estabrook, Free Compost--Or Toxic Sludge?, The Atlantic, December 1, 2009
  4. Anna Werner, Concern Over SF Compost Made from Sewage Sludge, CBS Channel 5, March 3, 2010
  5. Leora Broydo Vestel, Food Groups Clash Over Compost Sludge, New York Times Green Inc. blog, April 9 2010.
  6. Chris Roberts, Farmers Call PUC's Shit, Will Dump it on City Hall Today, San Francisco Appeal, March 4, 2010.
  7. Jill Richardson, What San Francisco Found in Their Own Sludge, La Vida Locavore blog, April 8, 2010.
  8. Hale Letter 8/6/10
  9. Hale Data NP
  10. Hale Data PAH
  11. Hale Data PBDE
  12. John Stauber and Sheldon Ramtpon, Toxic Sludge Is Good For You! LIes, Damned Lies and the Public Relations Industry, Pages 105-106, Common Courage Press, 1995.
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