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Sewage Sludge Hits The Fan

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San Francisco recently offered its residents free compost for their gardens. The compost was given away at local community events, and was labeled “organic biosolids compost.” In actuality the compost contained sewage sludge from nine California counties.  Once residents discovered the ruse they promptly returned the “compost” to the mayor’s office in San Francisco.  Sewage sludge is the end product of the treatment process for any human waste, hospital waste, and storm water.  The end product is called effluent and is normally dumped into landfills, incinerated, or used to produce methane gas.  In San Francisco’s case they also dump it into the Pacific Ocean.  The problem with all of this affluent is that once the water is removed from it, all of the impurities and toxins are left behind.  The things left behind in the effluent can include a number of heavy metals, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, pharmaceuticals, steroids, flame-retardants, bacteria (including antibiotic-resistant bacteria), fungi, parasites and viruses.  US EPA only requires communities to kill off any fecal coli forms in the sludge and ensure that nine heavy metals (arsenic, cadmium, chromium, copper, lead, mercury, molybdenum, selenium and zinc) are not present in unacceptable levels.  The use and disposal of sludge is a national issue and concern that dates back to the 1972 Clean Water Act.  Using sludge in farming applications does exist, but the implications do not bode well for farmers or those that consume the food products that come from farms that use it.  According to the U.S. EPA, about half of all sewage sludge is applied to farmland as fertilizer.  Unfortunately, there have been cases where cows die after sludge is used as fertilizer, and farmers who use it have come down with a variety of health issues.  Organic farmers cannot use sewage sludge as fertilizer and keep their organic status (one more reason to support organic farming.)  The toxins and impurities eventually enter humans through the food products they eat from farms that used this fertilizer.  The benefits of sewage sludge should only be applied to creating methane gas for energy.  Continued use of this fertilizer will only cause harm to livestock and humans.

Photo Courtesy: Orange County Register

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