The real beef with biosolids

The statement about injecting human waste into the soil [in the TIME article What If the World’s Soil Runs Out?] concerns me. How does Rodale [Institute] feel about this issue?  ~ Lisa

Treated human waste (otherwise known as sewage sludge or biosolids) has been floated as the “solution” to everything from the topsoil loss to dwindling supplies of mined phosphorus. But it has also been indicated as a risk to human and environmental health for a multitude of reasons. Heavy metals, although declining in recent years, are still a concern as are antibiotics, hormones, steroids and other pharmaceuticals, or things like triclosan, flame retardants and solvents that end up poured down drains.

Researchers at Virginia Tech, for example, recently warned that excreted antibiotics spread on farm fields are contributing to antibiotic-resistant bacteria and are a serious environmental problem.

And sewage sludge is already sprayed on conventional farm fields across the U.S. The only sector of agricultural land restricted from using biosolids is that of certified organic farms. “While nutrient cycling and a closed-loop system are key principles of organic agriculture, lifting the restrictions on sewage sludge for these farms could open the gate for a whole host of new problems,” says Coach Mark Smallwood, executive director at the Rodale Institute.


Photo by Brad Folkens/Flickr

10 Responses to “The real beef with biosolids”

  1. Alexa Schriempf

    Why not run biosolids through methane digester, run the resulting dry particulate through hot windrow composting, and then remediate the compost for heavy metals and antibiotics on designed bio-pads where you would also deposit collected oil spills (using compost booms) from the ocean, and use heavy metals and oil-loving grasses to remediate the whole kit and kaboodle?

    Not cheap, not with out intensive labor, but convenience has a cost. It can be done right, but without shortcuts, like spraying the direct effluvient of biosolids on fields….I mean, don’t they know the results of defecating in the rice paddies by now??

    -avid composter, Alexa

  2. Rory

    It seems to me that using biosolids is a good idea and a necessity if we are to close the loop and truly become sustainable. On that note, a lot of reform is needed in the way we treat our sewage including limiting non-sewage chemicals that go down the drain. I feel that poop from a healthy individual, properly composted, is simply no concern at all. At the same time, waste from some fat gross unhealthy person mixed with flame retardant and whatever else this genius puts down the drain could be quite dangerous. **Keep it local, keep it real. Work hard, work together, and LEARN :)**

  3. Richard Hggins

    As a researcher and demonstration farmer in the UK I find it relevant to comment here.

    At Sustainable Agriculture London we have been composting human waste for 15 years. We have been to shows, exhibits and festivals with the Howard-Higgins system. All with great success. Now the system is going to Africa where sanitation is an absolute disaster.

    I would not personally recommend taking sewage from any municipal source due to the problems mentioned above. The Howard-Higgins system takes all effluent from local uncontaminated sources with our own toilet system that does not involve flushing with water!

    This system HHS is the most sustainable and efficient way of reclaiming phosphorus from obnoxious wastes, as confirmed by the Director of the SEI (Sedish Environmental Institute) when I presented the system to them. It is probably the most efficient composting system anywhere
    and is probably the fastest also. Jeff has asked me ‘how do you make your compost?’ I have suggested Rodale get me over there to demonstrate!

    In Africa, and on my farm, we show how a pair of Howard-Higgins Hot Boxes of of 1cubic metre each can fertilize and entire acre per year. There is no run off and the system passes all environmental and health regulations of the UK.

    This is a very important message in the field of sustainability because if the 50% of the planet who don’t have any sanitation can learn to manage it themselves, then they will not only clean up their act but will be able to produce their own food on soils that might otherwise be incapable of production. HH -2 as it is now known is studied and learnt about by students from all over the world at our teaching facility here in the UK.
    But we are willing to travel, again, to the USA. We met up with Joe Jenkins (Humanure) and demonstrated how with HH -2 we can produce a slaeable safe one application compost/fertilizer in 90 days, rather than two years.

    Richard Higgins
    Organic Consultant

  4. Lauren

    The United Sludge Free Alliance has a lot of information about biosolids if anyone is interested in learning more. In land application it isn’t just applied to farms but to parks, golf courses, and many other public places. There is so much information out there and this website is a good resource I’ve found.

  5. bud hoekstra

    Rodale/Lisa – you are right. I heard the director of the UC-Davis student farm one year say, “We’ve plumbed our society wrong.” What we do is mix black water [feces] and yellow water [urine] with gray water [like shower runoff] and red water [cleansers, petrols, pesticides, antobiotics] into a a single system designed to handle only black, yellow and gray water. 40% of US homes and busienss use septic systems which have anarobic biodigesters [tanks] and aerobic biodigesters [leach fields]. The red water stops the biodigestion.
    Farmers’ fields also involve biodigestion, the kind that occurs naturally in the life of the soil. It is a mistake to think that trashing a field with sludge [red water] will close a loop – there’s no natural loop or cycle for manmade chemicals.
    Reactions in organic chemistry are notoriously soupy and contains a lot of toxic byproducts. Industry solved the problem of toxic wastes by refining these wastes into useful products like pesticides. In essence, we dump the toxic waste products from chemical processes on our food-producing fields, and sludge, given its “red” mix of these wastes is no less dangerous to use.
    What we have to do as a society is TO SPLIT FLOWS. Black, yellow and some gray waters can be returned to nature. red water cannot.
    Antibiotics stun the biota in biodigesters and stop biodigestion in the soil. Some are taken up in food crops, like lettuce, corn and beans. Other migrate to groundwater. It is suspected that latent antibiotics may curb the soil-life’s ability to return nitrogen to the atmosphere, thus contaminating groundwater with nitrogen that otherwise would be clean. [speculative unproven hypothesis – see Kaplan & others]

    Septic systems worked 100 years ago; with the modern array of red-water chemicals in the drains, septic systems may no longer adequately function. the same goes for sludge and food=producing fields. They don’t mix; split flows! Twenty years ago in Merced County, CA, sludge killed dairy cows that grazed after the sludge water was sprayed on pasture. Likewise, wells became tasting sour around the Hillmar Cheese Factory in Fresno County from the use of uncomposted cheese wastes on pasture.

    Natural cycles are the “right” plumbing for nature and for the built environment or the “human ecology.” We just don’t have the hang of it yet. Sludge would be a design flaw.

    As for fire retardants menetioned, see Sacramento Bee, Jan 27, Dan Morain’s “Rolling back reg’s on fire retardants.”

  6. Helane Shields

    Scientists have confirmed Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) is a transmissible, infectious prion disease. (Jucker, M 2010, Soto, C. 2011, Prusiner, S. 2012) There are over 6 million AD patients in the US. The epidemic grows by a new victim every 68 seconds.

    Recently, scientists including UCSF Nobel Laureate Stanley Prusiner (for his prion research) identified other diseases including Parkinson’s (3 million US victims), Huntington’s and Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis as also being caused by misfolding infectious prions/proteins–
    more victims shedding infectious prions in public sewers.

    AD/prion disease victims can shed infectious prions in aerosols,(coughs, sneezes) blood, saliva, mucous, urine and feces. Sewage treatment for either Class B OR CLASS A SLUDGE does NOT inactivate prions. To the contrary, it reconcentrates the infectious prions in the sewage sludge, including sludge biosolids compost, being applied on home gardens, US cropland, grazing fields and dairy pastures, putting humans, family pets, wildlife and livestock at risk for BSE and CWD.

    Other prion contaminated wastes discharged to sewers include rendering plants (which process remains of 2 million potentially BSE infected downer cows each year), slaughterhouses, embalmers and morticians, biocremation, taxidermists, butcher shops, veterinary and necropsy labs, hospitals, landfill leachates (where CWD infected and other carcasses are disposed.

    “The prion-like behavior implicated in Alzheimer’s disease also suggests that it may be transmissible like mad cow disease.”

    “Our findings open the possibility that some of the sporadic Alzheimer’s cases may arise from an infectious process,” senior author Claudio Soto said in a statement in October. ”

    One human pathway of risk is hamburger made from aging, asymptomatic dairy cows infected with Bovine Amyloidotic Spongiform Encephalopathy (BASE) mad cow [Three out of four US mad cows were infected with the “atypical” BASE strain of mad cow.] Old dairy cows are ending up UNTESTED in huge industrial mixing vats of hamburger, each containing meat from 50 to 100 animals from multiple states and two to four countries.

    In the July 3, 2010 issue of VETERINARY RECORD, renown Univ. of Wisconsin prion researcher Dr. Pedersen stated: “Finally, the disposal of sludge was considered to represent the greatest risk of spreading (prion) infectivity to other premises.”

    Helane Shields, Alton, NH

  7. Mark

    Rodale Institute’s “Using Compost” Video Promotes Sewage Sludge “Compost”

    Read this on sourcewatch…
    How do you explain this?

    • amanda

      Rodale Institute does not support the use of sewage sludge (aka biosolids) in compost. The video you reference was produced in the early 90s and Rodale Institute was only used for certain portions of the film. Regrettably, the program host Ron Alexander does include biosolids in a list of potential compost ingredients and points out that compost at a nursery he visits contains biosolids. We understand some of the agencies who provided funding for production were also waste management companies. Rodale Institute did not accept and has not accepted funding from either of these agencies. It should also be noted that the use of sewage sludge is totally forbidden in organic systems under USDA Certified Organic regulations, a restriction we support wholeheartedly.


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