Sewage Sludge

September 17, 2011
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Sewage sludge is what remains after wastewater treatment plants have completed their  work.  North America’s wastewater includes not only urine and feces that goes down toilets but the waste that goes down the drain from households, hospitals, garages, factories.

When the disposal of sewage into waterbodies, resulted in fish deaths, habitat destruction and citizen uproar, the Clean Water Act of 1972 required better treatment and other means of disposal. In the mid-1990s, the  treatment industry rebranded the toxic sludge that is the end product of wastewater treatment as “biosolids” and spread it on agricultural lands.  Initially, farmers took it as free fertilizer; soon they would have to be paid significant amounts of cash to do so.

According to the EPA, 7 million tons of sewage sludge is applied to US land. Most of this is Class B biosolids, the result of sewage treatment that renders sewage 95% free of pathogenic organisms. (Rare cities, such as Tacoma WA, undertake costly wastewater treatment to produce Class A biosolids, with pathogens reduced “below detectable levels.)

Since wastewater is a mix of household waste, industrial chemicals and storm water, the presence of industrial chemicals and toxins is a more serious issue. Typical biosolid samples contain between 30 to 45 contaminants.  Of the heavy metals, the EPA has set limits for only eight, including arsenic and mercury.  EPA’s monitoring and oversight of federal regulations regarding wastewater treatment and spreading, moreover, appears to have become increasingly lax.

Thanks to investigative journalists and vigilant citizen groups, however, we have growing body of knowledge about the effects of disposal of the products of North America’s wastewater treatment plants.

Learn More

Biosolids Hit the Fan An excellent overview of the food safety implications of sludge spreading by Portland journalist Joel Preston Smith.

Sewage Sludge Action Network (SSAN) provides a rich trove of documentation, including videos, on chemicals and biological substances that find their way into local waters, onto land, and into human and animal food webs.

United Sludge-Free Alliance is a organization an organization of volunteers concerned about the safety of land applied sewage sludge.

Citizens for Sludge-Free Lands is a New Hampshire group that maintains sludgefact.org with the latest news and scientific studies.

Toxic Sludge is Good for You! By John Stauber, Common Courage Press.  The wastewater treatment industry’s rebranding of sewage sludge as “biosoilds” is documented in this study by PR Watch of the Center for Media and Democracy.

Food Rights Network, also a project of the Center for Media and Democracy, covers the issues and has a Portal on Toxic Sludge.

Our Mission Through education and advocacy, PHLUSH helps local governments and citizen groups to provide equitable public restroom availability and to prepare for a pipe-breaking seismic event with appropriate ecological toilet systems.

Our Vision Toilet availability is a human right and well-designed sanitation systems restore health to our cities, our waters and our soils.

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Public Hygiene Lets Us Stay Human (PHLUSH) was founded in Portland, Oregon and today collaborates with groups across North America.

PHLUSH is a member of the World Toilet Organization and a partner in the Sustainable Sanitation Alliance.

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