NPR's "The Salt" Blog Muddies the Issue of Sewage Sludge

sludge spinIn a muddled attack on the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) and those who are concerned about produce grown in sewage sludge, "The Salt," NPR's James Beard award-winning food blog, parroted sewage sludge industry PR and misled readers with the article "Whole Foods Bans Produce Grown With Sludge. But Who Wins?" published on January 21. The article was written in response to CMD's report on January 15 that the natural and organic foods retailer Whole Foods had agreed to develop a policy to ensure it would not sell produce grown in sewage sludge. It quotes this reporter as well as two sewage sludge promoters, but fails to quote toxicologists or epidemiologists or reference any current scientific studies about the effects of spreading sewage sludge.

Minimizing the Concerns and the Concerned

"The Salt" article claims that only "a small group of activists has claimed that biosolids are toxic and full of heavy metals, pharmaceuticals and other chemicals." But in fact, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found in 2009 that dozens of hazardous materials, not regulated and not required to be tested for, have been documented in each and every one of the sludge samples the agency took from locations around the country. The hazardous materials included 27 metals that were found in virtually every sample, three pharmaceuticals -- including the antimicrobial triclocarban, which FDA recently moved to regulate in soaps -- in every sample, three steroids in all samples, and all but one currently used flame retardant chemical in all samples. Although EPA has subsequently dropped the ball on sludge, respected advocacy groups decided not to ignore the warning signs.

Advocacy groups that have called for a prohibition on the land application of sewage sludge because of these contaminants include the Center for Food Safety, Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, Organic Consumers Association, Center for Health, Environment and Justice, Farm Aid, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and dozens of local grassroots and consumer protection groups.

What Scientists?

"The Salt" article claims that "scientists who study sludge and waste experts say that this form of fertilizer actually delivers big environmental benefits." But the reporter apparently didn't speak with scientists like Dr. David Lewis, the former high-ranking, award-winning EPA microbiologist who challenged EPA's weak sludge regulations and with his team did the first peer reviewed groundbreaking research documenting illnesses and deaths linked to sludge exposure. His theory about how sludge exposure causes health problems has not been challenged in the peer-reviewed literature. It was confirmed by later studies by Dr. Sadik Khuder, an epidemiologist in the University of Toledo's Departments of Medicine and Public Health and Homeland Security, in an exposure study on over 600 people in Wood County, Ohio, over 400 of whom were exposed to sewage sludge. This study found statistically significantly elevated symptoms among those exposed to sludge, such as "abdominal bloating, jaundice, skin ulcer, dehydration, weight loss, and general weakness."

Other scientists who would question "The Salt" article's claims include Dr. Murray McBride, a toxicologist and soil scientist, and others at the Cornell University's Waste Management Institute, who have published extensively on the health and environmental impacts of applying sewage sludge to agricultural land; and epidemiologists Dr. Steve Wing and Amy Lowman at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, who published a survey of neighbors of sludge land application sites in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia, many of whom reported illness following application events, in 2013.

In fact, despite the article's insistence, the EPA no longer promotes the practice of spreading sewage sludge on agricultural land, and the scientific consensus opposes it.

NPR Buys the Sludge Industry's Polished PR

For the source of "The Salt" article's claims, look to the well-funded PR companies hired by the sewage sludge industry and its lobby groups, such as the Water Environment Federation, which had a budget of well over $20 million in 2012 and which invented the PR euphemism "biosolids."

"The Salt" article does not quote any consumer or environmental advocates or any of the scientists who have published the extensive list of scientific studies CMD sent to "The Salt" reporter several days before the article was published. It does rely on industry representative Chris Peot and sludge booster Sally Brown of the University of Seattle, who has unabashedly promoted the use of sewage sludge to grow food and called those who oppose the practice "ecoterrorists."

Brown's claim, parroted by "The Salt," that people are only concerned about the land application of sewage sludge because they're uncomfortable with "poop" flies in the face of the scientific evidence documenting substantial cause for alarm.

Whole Foods should be applauded for its decision to screen out produce grown in sewage sludge from its stores and deciding to implement what many eaters, activists, and scientists would celebrate as admirable precaution.


Are you talking about what we would normally think of as "sludge", or compost, or both? Your article doesn't specify. The issue is not trivial. While I oppose the use of "sludge" I would be open to the use of properly prepared compost if the food grown using it were properly tested.

It sounds like NPR wrote and article that took some wind out of your sails. As having a degree in writing and not science shouldn't you look at both sides of the coin? Maybe try and do some fair and balanced reporting? Plus your expert Dr. Lewis has a checkered past at best. Didn't he latch onto Dr. Andrew Wakefield and his fraud? I just want to know who is reporting on your spin and disinformation? This article smells funny. Maybe its just some sour grapes.

<p>When you say "compost," do you mean what backyard gardeners and organic farmers would think of as compost -- containing weeds, veggie remains, hay, leaves, etc. --&nbsp;or do you mean what the sewage sludge industry calls "compost," after it has heaped sewage sludge in a pile with some woodchips and let it sit for a while? Properly prepared compost does not contain sewage sludge from industrial and hospital wastestreams.</p>

"But in fact, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found in 2009 that dozens of hazardous materials, not regulated and not required to be tested for, have been documented in each and every one of the sludge samples the agency took from locations around the country. " This article doesn't mention the quantities they found. Assay techniques are pretty sensitive these days. Did they find enough to be worried about, or just traces?

The "just traces" argument is misleading on so many levels. Current sludge regulations have standards for only a handful of metals and nitrogen. And even these standards are much more lenient than those of other industrialized countries that land apply sludges. For example, no amount of lead-not even trace amounts-should be deliberately applied to garden soil or where children play. Yet EPA/USDA claim that 400 parts per million of lead in soil where children play is safe. Urban sludges contain a lot more than just toxic metals. It is an unpredictable complex mixture of thousands of industrial chemical compounds as well as harmful biological agents. Toxicologists are finding that the principle " the dose makes the poison" may be too simplistic when measuring the health and environmental risks of complex mixtures. The principle does not address synergistic effects, interactions, and the toxicity of breakdown products. The 2002 National Academy of Sciences biosolids report recognized this problem and warned that chemical-by-chemical risk assessment will not gauge the true risks of land application because the degree of complexity and uncertainty "requires some form of active health and environmental tracking." "Traditional toxicology assumes that there is a direct linear relationship between dose and effect. Not so for endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs)." Sewage sludge is full of EDCs. "Low doses--trace amounts-- of EDCs work in ways that are totally unpredicted by traditional toxicology," according to an internationally renowned EDC expert." For every EDC we test, there will be a non-monotonic response. See In other words, EDC's can harm organisms in parts per trillion-- depending on the time of exposure. Other unregulated chemicals such as dioxins and PCBs, ubiquitous in land applied sewage sludge, also harm organisms in part per trillion. But they magnify in the food chain, and concentrate, for example, in milk from cows that graze on sludge-treated pastures.

As a long time supporter of NPR, it is always disconcerting when they do biased articles. I've found this true in other environmental cases. Even when pressed to rewrite, they still wind up with the same bias! This bad piece of journalism goes to show that the author did not do research beyond interviews, and that it is an industry piece. When Cornell, USGS, EPA, Switzerland, farmers in France and the world over that have experienced degraded soils, loss of livestock and bees, home sites and health, are joined by numerous food companies that refuse to accept food grown in sludge, one must applaud Whole Foods for taking the stand it has. If the writer and those pro the land spreading of toxic waste water treatment plant sludge purchase certain products not grown in this waste and shop at Whole Foods, they have those of us around the world that fight to end this toxic practice to thank for the protection of their health and that of the health of their families.

If the author was really interested in land application of sewage sludge and any studies on adverse health impacts from exposure, perhaps she should have done a "Google" search for National Institute of Health's site for "sewage sludge research." She would have found 91,900 scientific articles. If she had done a further search on the NIH site for "sewage sludge adverse health impacts," she would have gotten 800,000 research articles on that subject--(does that sound like a small group of activists?). Perhaps she needs to do a little more research before her next article and posts opinions expressed from the "industry friendly bought and paid for" researchers (I will not call Sally Brown a scientists because she violated the foundation of independent investigation to reach a verifiable, sound conclusion--without bias and without payment for hire!) NPR and SALT blog should retract this article as tainted!

Your claim of 91,900 scientific articles on sewage sludge seemed high so I went to the NIH site and searched and found 25,587 articles listed. Then I searched for sewage sludge adverse health impacts, and I found 23 listed. You stated I would find 800,000. Can you provide a better source for your claims?

"The Salt" article claims that only "a small group of activists has claimed that biosolids are toxic and full of heavy metals, pharmaceuticals and other chemicals." This cuts straight to the heart of the industry and government's justification for ignoring harm from this North American wide practice. When sewage spreading started on Ottawa Canada farmland back in the 1990s, we rural people living near the spreading areas investigated and raised concerns about contamination of the aquifer we draw our well water from. Ottawa's medical officer of health responded "even if all your wells are contaminated by sewage spreading, and you all get sick from it, that wouldn't constitute an epidemic because people with wells are less than 5% of Ottawa's population". We since learned that this is known as "risk management". Whenever the numbers at risk of direct harm of illness from an industrial practice are less than 5% of the municipal population, there is no official requirement or justification to spend money investigating or doing research to protect such a statistically insignificant group of people. This from doctors who took the Hippocratic Oath to "do no harm"!

I have long suspected that NPR had fallen to the dark side since the 200 hundred million dollar donation they recieved from Joan Krock (who had good intentions) but that kind of money attracts the nefarious in sheep's clothing. This article outlines the gap between the will of the people versus the will of the tainted charlatans who slithered thier way into key, decision making. positions in our government.