The Dirty Truth About Biosolids (Or, Selling Sh#t Literally)

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Horror stories about biosolids abound. In 1979, a dairy farmer in Georgia began to lose his milk cows after he started applying locally produced sludge fertilizer to his fields. Eventually, 700 of them died. The EPA refused to test his field so the farmer hired out to have it done. The result? The fields contained high levels of thallium, a toxic metal that is the active ingredient in rat poison. It turned out that a nearby factory used the chemical in its production of NutraSweet and flushed the residues down the drain. Thallium was later detected in local supplies of milk at levels more than 11 times above the legal limit for drinking water. When the farmer sued the Federal Government for disaster relief, a judge found that, according to Mother Jones magazine, “senior EPA officials took extraordinary steps to quash scientific dissent and any questioning of the EPA’s biosolids program.”
Compost is rightly celebrated as the perfect soil amendment and a great way to recycle green waste. But not all compost is created equal. In fact, commercial compost based on “biosolids” or sewage sludge can be downright dangerous.

You know what biosolids are, right? Solids made from bio materials, just what the term suggests. One can’t help but think of Shakespeare, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Except biosolids don’t smell so sweet. And what’s in this name is otherwise known as shit.

Truth is, “biosolids” is a marketing term, a euphemism for sewage sludge. Sewage sludge is what remains of everything flushed down the sewers — human and animal feces, industrial chemicals, medical waste, oil products, pesticides, home cleaners — after the water is removed. The Environmental Protection Agency says it’s okay to call “biosolids” compost. The marketers who came up with the term biosolids (they did it by holding a contest) want you to think of it as natural. To that end, they’ve invested a ton of resources.