MISSION: Southwest Research and Information Center is a multi-cultural organization working to promote the health of people and communities, protect natural resources, ensure citizen participation, and secure environmental and social justice now and for future generations


Redefining Sludge --
Activists search for answers about sludge and its impact on our food supply

Few topics of environmental concern are as unpleasant to discuss as sludge. Most of us haven't much idea of what sludge actually is, never mind what it has to do with us personally. And a natural disinclination to engage ourselves with a distasteful subject happens to work to great advantage for those currently promoting the use of sludge as fertilizer. What we don't know won't hurt us, they figure. People who buy organic produce may have begun to hear about sludge early this year, when news began to surface that the USDA might actually include food grown on sludge-fertilized soil within its drafted rules of organic standards for agriculture. Even if you weren't sure what was in sludge, it sounded like a bad idea, and it prompted about 200,000 people to demand that USDA reject sludge-grown food -- as well as irradiated food -- from any national definition of organic. Some of us might be equally horrified to learn that sludge from municipal sewage treatment plants is made into pellets, bagged, and sold at garden centers as "organic," "natural," "environmentally friendly" soil improvement with no labeling (it used to be required but no longer is) to identify the contents, which do include, beyond human excrement filtered from the sewage, industrial wastes. Some home gardeners committed to pesticide- and chemical-free growing might unwittingly be "fertilizing" with toxics-laden sludge. And while food-packing companies like Del Monte and Heinz reportedly reject fruits and vegetables produced on sludge-fertilized soil, we don't have the information available to those companies in making our decision about what to buy. In the interests of the consumer's right to know, we thought a Workbook feature article might bring together several sources of information on a dauntingly complex and poorly understood subject. As you will see here, numbers of people have been studying it, writing and speaking about it, and taking action in their states. Setting the stage, our guest essayist Joan Dye Gussow describes the work of the National Organic Standards Board and the public response to the USDA's proposed organic standards, and tells how the USDA, pressured by the EPA, tried to make an end run around NOSB's unequivocal recommendations against sludge fertilizer. Abby Rockefeller gives enlightening broad historical background of the politics of sludge-promotion and root causes of our sewage waste dilemma. Jackie Hunt Christensen, of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, offers an overview of the potential impacts of sludge on agriculture with prominent examples to show why the risks of sludge application to land far outweigh the so-called benefits; researchers with the Environmental Working Group explain why organic farming must be left out of sludge fertilizer promotion -- no matter who else wants to use sludge. Stanford Tackett and Peter Montague appraise the EPA's faulty risk assessment methods and identify some of the direct dangers of toxins and heavy metals to soil as well as to humans. Caroline Snyder describes how New Hampshire provides a central illustration of local grassroots coalition resistance to state government-encouraged land spreading of sludge from neighboring states. Excerpted material from John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton's work entertainingly describes the public relations tactics to "sell" sludge to the public, and material from two respected research institutions, Worldwatch Institute and the Cornell University Waste Management Institute, call for more careful study and better regulations. Charlotte Hartman, who has been working tirelessly and doggedly on the issue for more than six years (and who contributed literally pounds of reference material), is given the "last word" to argue for a safe sludge disposal policy The aggressive promotion of sludge fertilizer as a solution to the nation's ever-mounting municipal sewage sludge problem means that sludge isn't going anywhere but closer to our neighborhoods and our food supply. It follows that the more we know about it, the better.

-- Kathy Cone

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