Allegations of Harm from Biosolids
Biosolids recycling can be a controversial topic. The idea naturally raises questions: "What do you mean, you're applying to soils what's left over from treating the wastes from toilets and drains in households, businesses, and industries?"
- required pretreatment of industrial wastes before they enter the wastewater system,
- required treatments and testing of biosolids (federal and state/provincial), and
- required management practices (including agronomic rate applications).
Despite decades of successful, beneficial biosolids & residuals use, there continue to be allegations of harm to people, animals, and the environment. These allegations are in videos, on the internet, and in the media. Some concerned citizens firmly believe them, despite the fact that all the common allegations have been reviewed and answered by researchers or regulatory or public health officials, who have found no significant harm related to properly-applied biosolids. (Some biosolids generate malodors, which, like other strong odors, significantly impact some individuals.)
Have there been mismanaged biosolids recycling programs or ones that did not follow regulations? Occasionally. Some have been illegal and were shut down. Just like in any human endeavor, there are bad actors, and one of NEBRA's core goals is to continuously advance best practices and support strong regulations and enforcement. Biosolids management must be done right.
But biosolids are not to blame for myriad problems, as a few people suggest. That defies common sense. Just think, for example, about those public employees who work with wastewater and biosolids - men and women in each of our communities. They are generally as healthy as the general population, even though they spend far more time around wastewater and biosolids than anyone else.
The fact is, overblown allegations impede society's progress in managing a significant "waste" that can be a resource. We all contribute to the production of wastewater and biosolids; we can all be part of the effort to manage these materials safely and cost-efficiently, rather than impeding the good work of public employees who deal with our "wastes" day-in, day-out.
In 2003, a group of small organizations led by the Center for Food Safety petitioned U. S. EPA to place a moratorium on the use of biosolids on soils. U. S. EPA responded responsibly, denying the petition. In the letter (see below), they refuted many of the common allegations that continue to circulate on the internet and amongst opponents to biosolids recycling.
The internet stories will not go away, and those of us in the profession can't do much about them - except to ask that you and others learn more, evaluate claims, consider the importance of how we, in modern societies manage this important "waste," and apply some common sense.
A good way to learn more is to tour your local wastewater treatment facility; contact NEBRA if you want help setting up a visit.
In the meantime, those of us in this profession must continue to improve what we do, based on the latest research and experience, including reducing malodors, working with communities where biosolids are recycled, advancing best practices, and being strong stewards of the environment and public health.
Other Allegations & Our Responses
Prions - In 2015, allegations arose again regarding biosolids and prions, the infectious, twisted proteins that cause mad cow and other diseases. This is not a new issue, although the science continues to develop. Read more...
The White House garden & biosolids compost - This story began in spring of 2009: a single soil test at the exciting new home garden at the White House triggered an online and print discussion of lead in urban soils and its potential impacts. Without fact-checking, many of the writers who took the story "viral" on the internet assumed that biosolids compost helped cause the somewhat elevated lead level. That's unlikely, as this Information Update demonstrates. The fact is, biosolids compost is a high-demand product used widely in agriculture, horticulture, and turf care. It is even used to reduce lead bioavailability at significantly contaminated sites. Published guides and research papers on this topic are available; contact the NEBRA office.
NEBRA Response to the Film "Sludge Diet" ("Tabou(e)") This documentary, originally released in 2006 in French in Quebec, advocates against the use of biosolids on land by citing incidents that purportedly show harm from this practice. The conclusions reached by those in the film have been refuted by U. S. EPA, state environmental agencies, and others, as discussed in this NEBRA response. More about the film here.
NEBRA Film Review of "Crapshoot: The Gamble with Our Wastes" This 2003 documentary film (photo above) was reviewed by NEBRA in 2005. The film is available here.