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Toxic Sludge Is Good for You!

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.

Welcome to our clearinghouse for information about hazardous sewage sludge. This resource is part of CMD's Food Rights Network.

Sewage sludge is the growing and continuous mountain of hazardous waste produced daily by wastewater treatment plants. The sewage sludge industry has created a PR euphemism it uses in place of the words "sewage sludge": "biosolids."

In May 2012, former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) scientist Dr. David L. Lewis addressed participants in an annual march to the Athens-Clarke County Landfill in Georgia. Athens-Clarke County stockpiles "biosolids" -- toxic sewage sludge -- behind Billups Grove Baptist Church. According to Dr. Lewis, a number of people at the church are suffering from burning eyes, burning lungs, and difficulty breathing since the stockpiling began. Some developed chronic infections and permanent scarring of the lungs. Dr. Lewis investigated the harms to human health associated with the spreading of sewage sludge as "fertilizer" during his time at the EPA, but was terminated in 2003. His supervisor, Dr. Rosemarie Russo, provided the following public statement: "Dr. Lewis’ involuntary termination over his research articles was not supported by the local lab management in Athens. He was an excellent researcher and an asset to EPA science." Dr. Lewis claims he was fired for documenting illnesses and deaths linked to "biosolids."

The text of Dr. Lewis' speech can be found via the Sewage Sludge Action Network here.


Breaking News on Toxic Sludge

Looking for Kids' Books? Avoid this Propaganda

The "biosolids" workbook published by the "Biosolids Program" of Kings County in Washington State (the Seattle area) suggests that kids try growing sunflower or marigold seeds in composted sewage sludge as well as in different kinds of soil to see which grow best.

Growing Plants in Sludge (Source: King County Wastewater Treatment Division)
Toxic sewage sludge is the material left behind after human and industrial waste is processed at wastewater treatment plants to clean and separate the water. The workbook activity doesn't suggest using gloves or any protective gear, even though some of the toxic contaminants found in virtually every sewage sludge sample tested by the EPA in 2009 include 27 heavy metals, four volatile organic compounds, dozens of pharmaceuticals, several steroids and hormones, and multiple kinds of highly toxic flame retardants.

The workbook talks about the supposed benefits of treated sewage sludge -- "biosolids contain all the essential nutrients that plants need for healthy growth[,] ... are rich in nutrients and organic matter, and are used as a soil amendment to improve soil and fertilize plants" -- without mentioning any of the toxic contaminants listed above. These toxics are especially hazardous to children and pregnant women. A follow-up article to the influential Chicago Tribune series on flame retardants, for example, exposed that small doses -- "no more than 3 milligrams per kilogram of weight per day" -- of the flame retardant "Firemaster 550," promoted as safe by industry and government officials, "can trigger obesity, anxiety, and developmental problems."

Toxic sludge also commonly contains endocrine disruptors, phthalates, industrial solvents, resistant pathogens, and perfluorinated compounds, which can bioaccumulate in soil, plants, and animals. All good reasons not to have kids planting seeds in it. The workbook reads like a follow-up to the "puppet" on which the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) previously reported, also made to educate kids about the joys of sludge.

Read more from CMD's PRWatch here.


Sludge in the News

  • Residents Fight Sludge in West Pennsboro, Pennsylvania: According to The Sentinel (9/7), "A group of West Pennsboro Township residents have expressed concerns over Carlisle borough's plan to permit local farms to spread sludge that includes human waste to fertilize their crops. . . . [O]ne area farm lies about 2,500 feet from the head waters of the Big Spring Creek in Newville. 'It jeopardizes the creek. It is the most toxic stuff that I’ve ever seen,' said Eugene Macri, an aquatic ecologist and environmental scientist who lives in the area. 'It contains massive amounts of heavy metals, hormones, biphenyls, you name it. The risk of biosolids were vastly underestimated by the Department of Environmental Protection and the Environmental Protection Agency. The stuff causes all types of infections, even Alzheimer’s disease.'"
  • West Bridgewater, Massachusetts Residents Wary of Farm 'Sludge': According to the Boston Globe (9/2), The use of treated sewage sludge to fertilize farmlands has some West Bridgewater residents concerned over odors and potential harm to their health and water quality. They are also concerned that no local authority is keeping track of where and how farmers are using the material. . . . Agricultural Commission member Beth Smith attended DeLano’s meeting and said afterward that her panel discussed the use of the biosolids recently. 'The Agricultural Commission is horrified the town can’t control it,' Smith said. 'And I personally think the sludge should not be used at all.'"
  • King County, Washington Brands Sludge Product and Pushes it at Northwest Flower and Garden Show: According to a press release reprinted in the West Seattle Herald (2/8), "King County’s clean-water utility has announced the launch of Loop, its new biosolids brand, at the Northwest Flower & Garden Show at the Washington State Convention Center, Feb. 8-12. . . . 'As an urban farming collective, it only makes sense that we use an urban-derived compost. We know that using Loop not only helps us grow great crops, it’s also the right thing to do,' said Sean Conroe, founder of Seattle-based urban farming collective Alleycat Acres, which uses GroCo compost made with Loop to fertilize and amend their city farm sites." "Biosolids," or treated human and industrial waste, include many hazardous chemicals. New studies found steroid hormone runoff from agricultural test plots smeared with sludge. Seattle cancer patient and naturopath, Dr. Molly Linton, has raised concerns about pharmaceutical residues such as the drugs in her chemo therapy making their way into sewer systems, and University of Washington Researcher John Kissel shares those concerns, according to King 5 News (2/7). The Food Rights Network supports urban farming, but doesn't support the growing of any food in toxic sludge.
  • Calabasas, California Residents Encouraged to Stock Up on Free Sludge! According to the Calabasas Patch (2/6), "Built in the early 1990s, Rancho Las Virgenes uses a highly-automated process to convert biosolids removed during the water reclamation process into U.S. EPA graded “Class A – Exceptional Quality” compost that has become a favorite of professional landscapers and home gardeners across the region. After nearly 20 years of production, some of the machinery and the buildings that house compost production must undergo significant maintenance and upgrades." So the facility is urging residents to come get some free sludge quick, to help them clean out before they fix up.

For more, see the Food Rights Network.


Videos and Testing of "Organic Compost"

Independent testing commissioned by the Food Rights Network found toxic contaminants in San Francisco's sewage sludge "compost". In the sewage sludge product that San Francisco's Public Utlity Commission was giving away to school and urban gardens as "organic compost" are contaminants with endocrine-disruptive properties including polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE), flame retardants, nonylphenol detergent breakdown products, and the antibacterial agent triclosan. The independent tests were conducted for the Food Rights Network by Dr. Robert C. Hale of the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences.

Watch the two videos below--from outstanding investigative reporting by the local CBS affiliate--which document the startling story of how San Francisco is violating its own precautionary principle law by dumping hazardous sludge on city gardens (and elsewhere):

Anna Werner Investigates: Organic Compost or Toxic Sludge?
Simon Perez reports on San Francisco's sludge giveaway.

Sludge Science

How to Handle Sewage Sludge, if You Must

Sewage sludge is contaminated with toxins and it is hazardous. The thousands of viruses, bacteria, heavy metals, persistent chemicals, human and animal drugs, carcinogens, endocrine disruptors and everything else that goes down the drain and into sewage plants ends up in the mountain of sewage sludge that the industry renames Biosolids and us increasingly trying to pawn off as "organic" fertilizer and compost. Today half of all sewage sludge is dumped on agricultural land, contaminating it with whatever it might contain. A growing body of scientific surveys and studies document the hazards of sludge. Here are some of them:

  • The Targeted National Sewage Sludge Survey was published by the EPA in 2009. EPA found that dozens of hazardous materials , not regulated and not required to be tested for, have been documented in each and every one--ALL--of the sludge samples EPA took around the USA.
  • In 2008, Marie Kulick prepared an excellent overview titled Smart Guide on Sludge Use and Food Production for the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.
  • The Environmental Working Group in 1998 issued two reports on sludge hazards:
    • Dumping Sewage Sludge On Organic Farms? Why USDA Should Just Say No, and
    • Routes of Exposure sewage sludge: EWG Research on Chemicals in sewage sludge.

Go to our Scientific Studies of Sewage Sludge article to find links to dozens of peer reviewed scientific studies in their entirety that examine and confirm the many hazards of sewage sludge.


The "Biosolids" Scam

John Stauber, adviser to the Food Rights Network and co-author of the 1995 book "Toxic Sludge Is Good for You!," talks about the EPA PR campaign spinning toxic sludge into "beneficial biosolids."

Sewage sludge is the growing and continuous mountain of hazardous waste produced daily by wastewater treatment plants. The sewage sludge industry has created an Orwellian PR euphemism it uses in place of the words "sewage sludge"-- biosolids. The term Biosolids was chosen in a PR contest by the lobby association for U.S. sewage treatment plants, the Water Environment Federation (WEF).

The WEF, with the support of the Environmental Protection Agency, has since the 1990s been promoting spreading this hazardous waste on farms and gardens, after it proved too hazardous to landfill, incinerate or dump into the oceans. The sewage sludge lobby also includes major corporations such as Synagro, front groups such as the US Composting Council, publications including BioCycle magazine, and even the Rodale Institute.


WARNING: Toxic Sludge Products

Toxic Sludge Title.png

The following "organic" products are deceptively sold as fertilizers, soil amendments, and/or compost, but they are all made from sewage sludge:
Agresoil, All-Gro, Amend, Bay State Fertilizer, Chesapeake Sunshine, CompostT, ComPro, Dillo Dirt, EKO Compost, EarthBlends, EarthMate, Glacier Gold, Granulite, GroCo, Gromulch, Growers' Blend, Earthlife, Hou-Actinite, Landscapers' Advantage, MetroGro, Milorganite, Mine Mix, N-Viro BioBlend, N-Viro Soil, Nitrohumus, Nutri-Green, ORGRO, Oceangro, SilviGrow, SoilPro™ Products Premium Compost, SoundGro, TAGRO, TOPGRO, Topper, Unity Fertilizer, WeCare Compost.

For more information on these and other products, visit our Toxic Sludge Products article.


Introducing the Food Rights Network

The Food Rights Network (FRN) is a project of the Center for Media and Democracy. FRN opposes dumping toxic sewage sludge on farms and gardens and advocates that no food should be grown in toxic sludge. You can contact the FRN by email to FoodRightsNetwork AT You can also sign up to receive helpful news:


Featured Article

"Dillo Dirt"

Dillo Dirt is an Austin, TX product sold as fertilizer but made from sewage sludge by the City of Austin Water Utility. Hundreds of communities across the U.S. sell toxic sludge products that are typically renamed biosolids and sold or given away as "fertilizer" or "compost" (and often even labeled or marketed as "natural" or "organic"). . . .

Sea of Toxic Mud


Several people complained about rashes from Dillo Dirt, compost made from treated sewage sludge, after the Austin City Limits (ACL) festival. According to the Austin American-Statesman, "Kathy Carr, 38, of Austin said she had a rash on her leg, face and eye and suspects the Dillo Dirt that oozed from the rain-soaked grounds at Zilker Park. Laura Ramirez, 25, also of Austin, said she developed a rash near a series of mosquito bites she received several days earlier. She said her doctor thought the rash looked like poison ivy." . . . Kathy Okon and others on "Twitter, Facebook and the Internet" had similar complaints about rashes after the festival, according to KVUE TV.

Dillo Dirt Mud Dancers.jpg
According to a July 2011 follow-article in Austin Cut, "Samuel, a Dallas man who attended ACL for the previous consecutive years, woke up after the fest with what he described as an itch on either his legs or his balls. By the end of that day, the itch spread across half of his body and to his face. The next morning his right eye was swollen completely shut and the “itch” turned into a rash covering a large part of his body, face, and neck. Photos showed his eye looking like a small slit lost in a mass of blackened, inflamed tissue. . . .

"Tenacious Virus"

Two months later, in December 2009, ACL festival goer Crystal Nolan from Puyallup, Washington, wrote a special editorial for the Austin American-Statesman about the "tenacious virus" she believes she picked up at the festival. "[M]aybe the virus was borne on the unseasonal heavy rains, which caused treated waste material called 'Dillo Dirt' to percolate through the 40 or so acres of the freshly fertilized lawn at Zilker Park," the editorial suggests. . . .

See the SourceWatch article on Dillo Dirt for more.


San Francisco's "Organic Compost"

Sewage Sludge Called "Organic"
Chez Sludge: How The Sewage Sludge Industry Bedded Alice Waters. As reported by author John Stauber, "The celebrity chef Alice Waters is probably the world's most famous advocate of growing and eating local, Organic food. In February 2010 her Chez Panisse Foundation chose as its new Executive Director the wealthy "green socialite" and liberal political activist Francesca Vietor. Vietor's hiring created a serious conflict of interest that has married Waters and her Foundation to the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) and its scam of disposing of toxic sewage sludge waste as free "organic Biosolids compost" for gardens." (Later in 2010, the Chez Panisse Foundation quietly changed Executive Directors; Vietor has since taken the lead of the SFPUC.)

BACKGROUND: San Francisco Bay celebrity chef Alice Waters would probably never dump sewage sludge onto her own garden, nor serve food grown in biosolids sludge in her world famous natural foods restaurant Chez Panisse. The stated mission of her Chez Panisse Foundation is to create "edible schoolyards" where kids grow, prepare, and eat food from their own organic gardens. But when Francesca Vietor was hired in February 2010 as the new executive director of the Chez Panisse Foundation she was also the Vice-President of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. The (SFPUC) was running a scam of disposing of sewage sludge waste as free "organic Biosolids compost" for school and home gardens. Thanks to an "open records" investigation by the Food Rights Network, the public and the press have easy online access to scores of internal SFPUC files, documenting the strange tale of Chez Sludge: How the Sewage Sludge Industry Bedded Alice Waters.

The SFPUC had been deceptively bagging toxic sewage sludge as 'organic compost' and giving it away to unsuspecting gardeners, people to whom the word 'organic' connotes the highest level of pure, toxin-free food production.

On March 4, 2010, the Organic Consumers Association and dozens of San Francisco community groups protested at the mayor's office causing the city to put its sludge "compost" giveaway on the shelf, where it sits today -- a major victory for OCA and the Food Rights Network.


Featured Hero

The Food Rights Network Salutes Acclaimed Documentary Filmmaker Deborah Koons Garcia for Standing Up to Sludge

Documentary Filmmaker Deborah Koons Garcia Condemns BioCycle's Attack on Organics Advocates and BioCycle's Push to Grow Food in Sewage Sludge
At the national "BioCycle" conference on April 12, 2011 in San Diego, Deborah Koons Garcia bravely spoke out against the sewage sludge industry's efforts to pass off sewage sludge as great compost for gardens and farms. Koons, who directed the acclaimed film "The Future of Food" and whose newest film is "Symphony of Soil," had been asked to be give a keynote address by BioCycle due to her study of the amazing work of soil in our food and ecosystem.

When Garcia discovered that BioCycle promotes growing food in sewage sludge -- which is the industrial and human waste flushed down the drains and which contains hazardous substances like flame retardants, metals, endocrine disruptors, and pharmaceuticals -- she gave a keynote address to the conference opposing this practice and expressing concerns about the effect of this contamination on soils and land. She also condemned BioCycle's effort to smear organics advocates.

Organics advocates also attended the Biocycle conference to demand a retraction from Sally Brown and Nora Goldstein of BioCycle magazine, who called non-violent organics advocates exercising fundamental first amendment rights "ecoterrorists."

For more, see the SourceWatch articles on BioCycle, Sally Brown and Nora Goldstein and the Center for Media and Democracy news release on PRWatch here.


No Comment

"I Dare You, Put Sewage Sludge In Your Mouth"

by Jill Richardson on FireDogLake (April 24, 2011)

A new Washington Post piece by Darryl Fears claims sewage sludge is safe enough to put in your mouth. Specifically, the statement was made about “Class A Biosolids,” the treated sewage sludge (renamed “biosolids” to make it sound less unpleasant) that has regulated amounts of 10 heavy metals, salmonella, and fecal coliform. Read more here:


More Resources on Toxic Sludge

Here are some very helpful articles about the toxic sludge fight across the country:

SourceWatch Articles

PRWatch Articles

  • Rebekah Wilce, Looking for Kids' Books? Avoid this Propaganda,, August 22, 2012
  • Sara Jerving, New Toxic Sludge PR and Lobbying Effort Gets Underway,, March 16, 2012
  • Rebekah Wilce, More Free Sludge! Calabasas, California Offers Free Sewage Sludge,, March 6, 2012.
  • Sara Jerving, Sara Jerving, Sewage Sludge Rash: Texas Musical Fest-Goers Blame "Dillo Dirt",, March 2, 2012.
  • Rebekah Wilce, Meet Kellogg's Sludge Puppet,, November 9, 2011.
  • Lisa Graves, Children Gardening in Sewage Sludge: Los Angeles Schools Alerted,, October 11, 2011.
  • Jill Richardson, Los Angeles and Kern County's Epic Sewage Sludge Battle,, October 5, 2011.
  • Jill Richardson, ALEC Exposed: Protecting Factory Farms and Sewage Sludge?,, August 4, 2011.
  • John Stauber, San Francisco's Free "Organic Biosolids Compost" is Toxic Sludge, and Not Good For You!,, August 17, 2010.
  • John Stauber, Chez Sludge: Complaint Filed Regarding Francesca Vietor's Threat to the Guardian,, July 13, 2010.
  • John Stauber, Chez Sludge: How the Sewage Sludge Industry Bedded Alice Waters,, July 9, 2010.
  • John Stauber, ACSH Makes Alice Waters a Poster Child for Toxic Sludge,, April 13, 2010.
  • John Stauber, Waiter, There is Toxic Sludge in my Soup!,, March 16, 2010.
  • John Stauber, San Francisco's Toxic Sludge: It's Good for You!,, February 8, 2010.

External Articles

  • Jill Richardson, Why Is the Monterey Aquarium Greenwashing Sewage Sludge?, FireDogLake, May 19, 2011.
  • Beth Buczynski, Celebrities Duped By Sewage Sludge Industry's 'Compost',, May 7, 2011.
  • Rebecca Renner, Sludge Sloughs Off Perfluorinated Chemicals: Biosolids can leach perfluorinated chemicals into farm soil, albeit at low levels, Chemical and Engineering News, April 8, 2011.
  • Food Rights Network Finds Contaminants in "Organic Biosolids Compost", CMD, August 10, 2010.
  • John Stauber, Chez Sludge: How the Sewage Sludge Industry Bedded Alice Waters, July 9, 2010
  • James Burger, Kern wins again as U.S. Supreme Court refuses to hear sludge case,, June 1, 2010.
  • Barry Estabrook, Composted Sewage Stirs Up Bay Area Food Fight, The Atlantic, May 3, 2010.
  • Susan Galleymore, The Green Mayor Has Toxic Sludge on His Hands, Op-Ed News, April 25, 2010.
  • John Stauber, ACSH Makes Alice Waters a Poster Child for Toxic Sludge,, April 12, 2010.
  • Leora Broydo Vestel, Food Groups Clash Over Compost Sludge, New York Times Green Inc. blog, April 9 2010.
  • Jill Richardson, What San Francisco Found in Their Own Sludge, La Vida Locavore blog, April 8, 2010.
  • Peter Fimrite, Groups make stink over S.F. 'biosolid' compost, SF Chronicle, April 7, 2010.
  • Jill Richardson, Francesca Takes Legal Action over Sludge Article, La Vida Locavore blog, April 7, 2010.
  • Suzanne Goldenberg, US chef Alice Waters criticised over sewage fertiliser: Top US healthy-eating chef Alice Waters attacked for supporting fertiliser made of sewage, UK Guardian, April 1, 2010.
  • John Stauber, Chef Alice Waters and Chez Panisse the Targets of a Toxic Sludge Protest,, March 31, 2010.
  • Brady Welch, Shit show: What the SFPUC has been dumping in city gardens?, San Francisco Bay Guardian, March 23, 2010.
  • John Stauber, Waiter, There Is Toxic Sludge in my Organic Soup!,, March 16, 2010.
  • Jill Richardson, Food Sunday: Toxic Sludge as 'Organic Fertilizer', FireDogLake, March 7, 2010.
  • Anna Werner, Concern Over SF Compost Made from Sewage Sludge, CBS Channel 5, March 3, 2010.
  • Chris Roberts, News Farmers Call PUC's Shit, Will Dump it on City Hall Today, San Francisco Appeal, March 4, 2010.
  • Josh Harkinson, A Backlash After San Francisco Labels Sewage Sludge Organic, Mother Jones magazine, March 4, 2010.
  • Evelyn Nieves, Claim: San Francisco giving gardeners toxic sludge, Associated Press in the Boston Globe, March 5, 2010.
  • Charlie Reid, There's a reason towns ban sludge spreading, Foster's Daily Democrat, February 21, 2010.
  • Barry Estabrook, Free Compost--Or Toxic Sludge?, The Atlantic, December 1, 2009.
  • Heather Knight, Nonprofit calls PUC's compost toxic sludge, San Francisco Chronicle, September 27, 2009.
  • Lawsuit Links Chemical To Cameron Tumors Brockovich Report Says Hexavalent Chromium Used As Fertilizer, KMBC-TV, April 23, 2009.
  • Mark Schultz, Biosolids concerns bubble to surface Neighbors say sewage sludge spread on fields may be making them sick, Chapel Hill News, April 19, 2009.


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