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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.

WARNING: That garden "compost" you see, the one called Amend, promoted in photo ops of "organic" gardens by Hollywood stars is sewage sludge. The stars promoting the gardens were unwittingly paired with a corporation whose main business is selling sewage sludge-based products, but without any such disclosure on the bags. No law requires that sewage sludge be labeled to warn you to avoid it, so the sewage industry now calls it "compost" and disposes of it by duping unsuspecting gardeners into putting it on their gardens. Kellogg Garden Products and the Environmental Media Association are corporate partners. Kellogg contributes its products and support to EMA, and EMA greenwashes Kellogg's brand name and thus its hidden sludge products.

We have a new article on the Environmental Media Association and our letters demanding that they stop the greenwashing, which you can read here.


Breaking News on Toxic Sludge

New Toxic Sludge PR and Lobbying Effort Gets Underway

A trade association known for using the terms "compost," "organic," and "biosolids" to describe sewage sludge is investing in a new public relations campaign to influence policymakers and the public. The US Composting Council (USCC), which was founded by the disposable diaper industry, will be expanding its long-standing efforts to "rebrand" sewage sludge, which is increasingly disposed of on agriculture crops and through garden centers without telling the public that their food is being grown in medical, industrial, and human waste.

Earlier this year, the USCC announced that it hired a PR firm, Colehour + Cohen, to help with the rebranding efforts and that it will also be increasing lobbying efforts.

The word “compost” traditionally has applied to vegetable material and scraps gardeners and farmers collect to re-use on crops and gardens. The USCC uses the term "compost" on an industrial scale to include sewage sludge, as well as other commercial and municipal waste.

A handful of sewage sludge mixed with yard trimmings.
The spreading of sewage sludge -- which contains numerous toxic substances -- on farm fields and gardens has come under increasing fire by citizens concerned about the potential health consequences of this practice. Although the industry claims the practice is cheap and safe, a previous U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) survey concluded that all sewage sludge contains toxic and hazardous materials, including endocrine disruptors.

As documented in Toxic Sludge is Good for You, a book by the founder of the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD), John Stauber, the sewage sludge industry has attempted to re-brand sewage sludge as "biosolids" since the 1990s. The EPA embraced the new term, and in 1992 used the term "biosolids" for the first time in new regulations that reclassified certain kinds of sewage sludge that were previously designated as hazardous waste, as "Class A" fertilizer.

For more of the latest PR spin from the sludge trade group, see FRN for the rest of the 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:


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"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:


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.


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.


Sludge in the News

  • 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.
Beginning in 2007, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) began sporadic free giveaways of its sewage sludge. The San Francisco sludge was processed by the Synagro company (along with sludge from 8 other counties) and given away as free "organic biosolids compost" to gardeners.
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. In September 2009, both the Center for Food Safety and Resource Institute for Low Entropy Systems (RILES), a Boston-based organization that works to protect public health and the environment, petitioned the city to end its sludge compost giveaways. They received an answer in late November 2009 from Natalie Sierra of SFPUC; instead of halting the progrma, SFPUC hoped to expand it tenfold.
A March 4, 2010, demonstration at City Hall by the OCA forced a temporary halt to the program. The misleadingly 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.
When faced with protests and attention from national and international media, SFPUC announced it was suspending its sludge giveaway program and testing its sludge compost for contaminants. It also abandoned use of the word "organic," insisting the term referred to organic chemistry and not the USDA National Organic Program. However, it also refused to admit wrongdoing and instead focused on refining its sludge PR. Its Vice President, Francesca Vietor, went on the offensive, providing her version of the facts to friends and allies and enlisting them to publicly and privately stand up for both her and sludge.
In emails, SFPUC staff admits that it is very worried about another sludge giveaway program - a larger program that sends "Class B Biosolids" to Solano County to be spread on land where animal feed crops are grown. There has been some pressure in Solano County to limit or end sludge applications and SFPUC fears that any negative attention to sludge will lead Solano County to make it more difficult or costly for them to dispose of their sludge.
  • Sewage Sludge Spread on Farms Alarms Lehigh County, Pennsylvania Residents: According to The Morning Call (2/4), "[Thomas] Shetayh and other Lynn Township residents want neighboring farmers to stop using sludge to grow crops, a practice residents say is polluting their water supply and leaving a stench in the air. Dozens of residents packed a Lynn meeting in January after traces of fecal coliform and E. coli were discovered in a resident's well." For more, see The Morning Call's 2/6 article, and the Food Integrity Campaign.

For more, see the Food Rights Network.


Featured Article

2011 BioCycle 11th Annual Conference on "Renewable Energy from Organics Recycling"

In late 2011, BioCycle held its 11th Annual Conference on "Renewable Energy from Organics Recycling" in Middleton, Wisconsin. The Center for Media and Democracy attended the conference as an observer. Panels included "Codigestion At Wastewater Treatment Plants," on digesting toxic sludge along with food waste and "FOG" (fats, oils and grease) together in anaerobic digesters in order to increase energy output.

EPA whistleblower Hugh Kaufman has called anaerobic digestion, or using sludge to generate methanol or energy, the "most environmentally sound approach, but also the most expensive," to sludge disposal. However, anaerobic digestion of sewage sludge, while it reduces the volume of the sludge and heats it to a temperature that kills many pathogens, still leaves behind what BKT and others in the industry call "digestate" or, more specifically in this case, "biosolids." These "Class A Biosolids" (so-called because the Environmental Protection Agency has stricter limits on pathogens and "vector attraction" for Class A than for Class B Biosolids, i.e. they must not attract disease-carrying insects or rodents, etc.) still contain other sludge contaminants, including Dioxins and Furans, Flame Retardants, Metals, Organochlorine Pesticides, 1,2-Dibromo-3-Chloropropane (DBCP), Naphthalene, Triclosan, Nonylphenols, Phthalates, Nanosilver, and thousands more substances.

For more, including a full list of exhibitors and participants in the conference, see the full article here.


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.


WARNING: Toxic Sludge Products

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.


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, More Free Sludge! Calabasas, California Offers Free Sewage Sludge,, March 6, 2012.
  • Sara Jerving, Sewage Sludge Rash: Texas Musical Fest-Goers Blame "Dillo Dirt",, March 2, 2012.
  • Rebekah Wilce, Neighbors Occupy Road, Blockade Sludge Trucks,, January 2, 2012.
  • Rebekah Wilce, Sludge Industry Reveals "Resource Recovery" Spin,, December 15, 2011.
  • 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, Would you "Like" Sewage Sludge on Facebook?,, September 12, 2011.
  • Jill Richardson, ALEC Exposed: Protecting Factory Farms and Sewage Sludge?,, August 4, 2011.
  • Jill Richardson, Why is Monterey Bay Aquarium Greenwashing Sewage Sludge?,, May 20, 2011.
  • John Stauber, San Francisco's Free "Organic Biosolids Compost" is Toxic Sludge, and Not Good For You!,, August 17, 2010.
  • John Stauber, Gavin Newsom Hopes to Leave his Sludge in San Francisco,, July 27, 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.
  • Jill Richardson, Toxic Sludge Taints the White House,, March 29, 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.
  • John Stauber, Toxic Sludge: Better than Ever!,, May 3, 2009.
  • John Stauber, Toxic Sludge is Still Good for You!,, April 28, 2009.

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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