Son of Toxic Sludge: The Smell That Won’t Die

Sewage sludge is the mucky residue of municipal wastewater treatment operations, consisting largely of human feces. Repackaged as “biosolids,” sludge is sold or given away to farmers and homeowners for use as a nutrient-rich fertilizer.

But when used to grow food, our turds may bite back: sludge can contain heavy metals, pharmaceuticals, toxic chemicals, disease-causing bacteria (including e. coli and salmonella), viruses (hepatitis and polio), and parasites that can contaminate soil and potentially food crops. More than 330 synthetic chemical contaminants that have been detected in sludge are known or suspected toxins.

There has been little study of the health consequences of sludge use in farming. The Cornell University Wastewater Management Institute found just one published research review of illnesses in communities near sludge-applied land. This 2002 paper concluded that reports of “illnesses and even death” near farmland that used sludge suggested chronic and acute risks from exposure to contaminants in sludge. The researchers concluded that risks from sludge “suggests that [its] use should be eliminated.”

Fifteen years ago, Toxic Sludge is Good for You, the seminal book on the public relations industry, outlined in detail the birth of the sludge industry, exposing how the EPA funded an industry front-group to re-brand sludge as “biosolids” and promote its use as fertilizer (you can download the full chapter on sludge free of charge). Using taxpayer money, EPA concluded that sludge desperately needed an image-makeover to overcome the “widely held perception” that it is “malodorous, disease causing or otherwise repulsive.”

Convinced perhaps that their shit didn’t stink, EPA dismissed concerns about odors from sludge use as “irrational.”  The agency mused, “It is difficult to say to what extent odors emanating from sludge may be imagined.”

Today, sludge promoters are at it again and farmland isn’t the only sludge hazard. Some cities and towns offer fertilizer giveaways to home gardeners. In San Francisco, public interest groups led by the Center for Food Safety recently petitioned the city to end its “composted biosolids” giveaway program, citing potential health hazards.

In response, the city’s Public Utilities Commission (PUC, which oversees the sludge program) stated it hoped to expand the sludge program.

(If you think the San Francisco’s sludge-pimping stinks, you can join the Organic Consumers Association and urge the city and the PUC to call for an end to the program.)

Sludge use is prohibited or strictly limited in the UK, Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands.  Even major American food companies, including Del Monte, Heinz and General Mills, forbid their suppliers from using sludge to grow produce for their companies’ products.

Consumers in the U.S. can avoid sludge by buying organic food, whose standards prohibit the use of sludge, and by supporting local producers who avoid sludge. For home use, gardeners should look for organic compost (the Organic Materials Review Institute keeps updated lists of products permitted in organic production) and avoid the many common sludge-containing products.

Comments Closed


  1. Posted February 18, 2010 at 5:24 pm | Permalink

    The US EPA and waste industry are promoting the landspreading of Class B sewage sludge containing infectious human and animal prions on grazing lands, hay fields, and dairy pastures. This puts livestock and wildlife at risk of infection. They ingest large quantities of dirt and top dressed sludge with their fodder.

    Prion infected Class A sludge “biosolids” compost is spread in parks, playgrounds, home lawns, flower and vegetable gardens – putting humans, family pets, and children with their undeveloped immune systems and hand-to-mouth “eat dirt” behavior at risk. University of Wisconsin prion researchers, working with $100,000 EPA grant and a $5 million Dept. of Defense grant, have found that prions become 680 times more infectious in certain types of soil. Prions can survive for over 3 years in soils. And human prions are 100,000 times more difficult to inactivate than animal prions

    Recently, researchers at UC Santa Cruz, and elsewhere, announced that Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) is a prion disease. “Prion” = proteinaceous infectious particle which causes always fatal TSEs (Transmissible spongiform encephalopathies) in humans and animals including BSE (Mad Cow Disease), scrapie in sheep and goats, and Chronic Wasting Disease in deer, elk and moose. Human prion diseases are AD and CJD (Creutzfeldt Jakob Disease,) and other rarer maladies. Infectious prions have been found in human and animal muscle tissue including heart, saliva, blood, urine, feces and many other organs.

    Alzheimer’s rates are soaring as Babyboomers age – there are now over 5.3 million AD victims in US shedding infectious prions in their blood, urine and feces, into public sewers. This Alzheimer’s epidemic has almost 500,000 new victims each year. No sewage treatment process inactivates prions – they are practically indestructible. The wastewater treatment process reconcentrates the infectious prions in the sewage sludge.

    Quotes from Dr. Joel Pedersen, Univ. of Wisconsin, on his prion research:

    Our results suggest that if prions were to enter municipal waste water treatment systems, most of the agent would partition to activated sludge solids, survive mesophilic anaerobic digestion, and be present in
    treated biosolids. Land application of biosolids containing prions could represent a route for their unintentional introduction into the environment. Our results argue for excluding inputs of prions to municipal wastewater treatment.”

    “Prions could end up in wastewater treatment plants via slaughterhouse drains, hunted game cleaned in a sink, or humans with vCJD shedding prions in their urine or faeces, Pedersen says”
    (Note – This UW research was conducted BEFORE UCSC scientists determined that Alzheimer’s Disease is another prion disease which may be shedding infectious prions into public sewers and Class B and Class A sludge “biosolids.)

    Helane Shields, Alton, NH 03809

  2. PJ Johnson
    Posted February 19, 2010 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

    i hate to say it but I have always been a little wary of the free compost cities give away. but i think the main point is sludge shouldn’t be used to grow food as it is pretty toxic (yes our shit is toxic from all the toxins we put in our bodies through food, pills, air, water, creams, lotions, fragrances, plastic containers, flame retardants on our furniture, etc.). a closed system where things don’t “go away” they just get pushed around into different places and different forms… who would have thought such a crazy ecosystem exists?

  3. Barry Woods
    Posted February 22, 2010 at 8:18 am | Permalink

    I don’t think I have ever seen so much misinformation crammed into one artcle in my life.

    First there is a difference between sludge and biosolids. Sludge is what is collected in primary clarifiers at a wastewater treatment plant (the turds if you must get down to street language about these things). Biosolids are the product of a biological process that is designed to remove organic material, and sometimes Nitrogen and Phosphorus.

    Biosolids and sludge are often blended because the biosolids are difficult to settle and the sludge is not. The comined primary and biological solids are further processed. The degree and type of processing generate Class A biosolids and Class B biosolids. Class A biosolids generally go to landfills because the level of stablization is not adequate to stabilize the organic materials to an acceptable level for land application.

    Class B solids can be land applied. The limitation here is that the land application cannot, by law, be to crops for human consumption. Composting is a Class B process. The compost given away or, in some cases, sold to the public is not for use in food crop gardens. It is for use in nurseries and lawns.

    In wastewater treatment, over half the cost is for biosolids treatment and disposal. Land application is a benefical reuse of the byproduct of wastewater treatment. I would think a publication with the name “Generation Green” would find this approach to be laudable rather than something to ridicule and spread misinformation about. It think you do the public a disservice with this kind of reporting.

  4. Posted March 19, 2010 at 10:56 am | Permalink

    It is completely inaccurate to say that the “biosolids compost” (sludge) that the San Francisco PUC gives away is “not for use in food crop gardens.” As the PUC’s brochure touting its program states, their sludge is intended for “for growing edible vegetables and fruits.” (see The rest of your comment is similarly misinformed (for more accurate information on sludge, see the legal petition to the City of San Francisco calling for a ban on the sludge give-away program at )

  5. Karen Ellerbach
    Posted August 9, 2010 at 9:32 am | Permalink

    Thank You so much for the Sludge Experts that are so Educated and want to help save people in this World!

    Our sludge hauler neighbor John Wulfekuhle & Son Lee Wulfekuhle who owns Wulfekuhle Injection hauled Toxic Sludge out on Wulfekuhle farm knowing how it would harm there neighbors. John’s brother Jim Wulfekuhle was even told by the Dnr how sick we were getting from the Airborn Chemicals Still he hauled it on his land also .A sludge expert Maureen Reilly called us she heard on channel 9 how sick we were. She heard on Tv that our Doctors insisted we move out of the enviroment.Maureen was the one to realize how much they overloaded there CRP land. Not the DNR .The Dnr tried to help although Mike Wade said SADLY Iowa has no Rules! Mike said we need to help get the laws changed. So people in Iowa need to get Educated on this Toxic Chemicals many Semi loads are brought into Iowa because Other States has it Banned and they Dump in Town Sewer’s with the human waste. All these Sludge Experts are doing a Wonderful job and having Web Sites to Educate how Dangerous this is for Everyone ! And they Educate how when the Sludge is put on Crop grounds how that all Effects all of our food , milk. Also how very sick Humans & Animals get. Also how death can happen. There is all kinds of Wonderful Websites to help Educate you so this.Just pray that this don’t ever happen to you or a loved one! We were very, very sick sick from these Toxins we don’t want anyone to go through this.Don’t let Ignorance fool you they know they are harming several families. Like Dnr said they told Wulfekuhle how sick we were and they don’t care who they harm everyone can see that they continue harming humans, crops, animals, gardens, well water! We need everyone’s help on this cause this very well could end up around your place even around Town’s. They have Damaged our health,created thousands & thousands of doctor bills so we could help stop the diarreha, vomitng and all the other side affects that comes with it. Detox, Detox.. It was hell all because of our neighbors putting Toxic Chemicals on there land!

  6. Alison Geering-Kline
    Posted August 13, 2010 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for sharing your personal story. That sounds like quite a horrible ordeal–this is exactly why we are so committed to eliminating toxic chemicals!

  7. Karen Ellerbach
    Posted August 20, 2010 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

    I will continue telling our story. It indeed is
    horrable Mike Wade says this could go on for years that we could be dealing with. If there is anyone
    that dont believe that this could happen, all i’ll
    say is have it hauled around your place you’ll
    understand real quick,what it does to your health&
    to your property & all the doctor bills. It’s just
    not right ! It really saddens me how there was not
    much help from the DNR. And there suppose to be
    Enviroment specilist where are they when people
    need help. Iowa really needs to Ban this Sludge or
    figure something else out. I hope Iowa figures
    something out soon or everyone’s health is at
    Risk! Generation Green keep up your good work on
    Educating people on how dangerous this is for everyone ! Peace..

  8. Karen Ellerbach
    Posted September 3, 2010 at 5:25 am | Permalink

    3 years now still getting the air borne of chemicals & our building are still pickled.
    it still reactative after it rains,
    or when its damp out it reactvates the smell . so we still smell it, still get sick when this happens. its 3 years of living this way and were suppose to be happy campers.Our neighbor put us in this situation. Gee thanks for being a good neighbor, and hauling sludge next to us !
    John Wulfekuhl you should get an award for being
    a good neighbor (NOT) by hauling sludge in for getting your neighbors sick. Word of advice when
    you haul and the Dnr says your getting families
    very sick its time to stop hauling on your land.
    Please dont haul any more, we all suffered dearly!

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