Thursday, 24 January 2019

Polluting for Profit - the "biosolids" business model.

Polluting for Profit - the "biosolids" business model.
It is hard to believe that in this age of hyper-awareness of environmental issues, and the growing sensitivity to the importance of the agricultural lands outside our urban centers, that there is a business that is centered around the transporting and disposing of toxic waste from urban areas to farms and forests. The success of this business has been based on keeping the general public, and those in the countryside where they were spreading the waste, in utter darkness as to the true nature of this practice.

Welcome to the "biosolids" business - purveyors of toxic sewage sludge.

Most wastewater treatment facilities do a fantastic job of cleaning our sewage water of pollutants before that water is introduced back into the environment. These facilities separate out and collect the pollutants that were originally in that sewage stream. These collected, and concentrated solids are called sewage sludge. It represents everything people pour down their sinks and goes down storm drains - cleaners, solvents, pharmaceuticals including cancer drugs, and of course poop, lots of poop.

The big problem for our modern cities is what to do with these piles of toxic goulash. In the past they simply emptied these residuals into the oceans and lakes, but that was outlawed with the Clean Water Acts - it was too toxic to dispose of in that manner. They tried burning it, but that too was too polluting - hence the Clean Air Acts. The disposal method of choice now is - "land application" - but wait a minute - isn't there a Clean Soils Act to protect the rural environment? If it was too toxic to burn or pour into waterways, how is it ok to spread over Mother Earth? Good question, and NO, our soils have no such protection against this onslaught of pollutants. So here we are - cities use the cheapest legal method to hand of disposing of our cities' toxic burden - trucking it out to the countryside - out of sight, out of mind.

This is where the "biosolids" business model comes into play - polluting for profit.

This business has set itself up as a middleman - offering our cities a way of getting rid of its pollutants. It merely needs to find someone willing to takes tons of waste, full of thousands (85,000+) of toxins, and spread it on their land. Job done.

How is this done?

Some municipalities actually buy hundreds or thousands of rural acres on which to spread this waste. Most however hire these "biosolids" companies, to hoodwink others to take this sludge.
Firstly, they need to convince farmers and ranchers, those with the acres of land, that the collected and concentrated residuals coming out of our waste treatment facilities, are actually a form of "fertilizer" and not really a pollutant-rich sludge.  Secondly, they need to convince the population, and the various levels of government, that the constant trucking out (at huge carbon emission cost) of all this toxic sewage waste into rural environments is a virtuous, green and sustainable practice. That is a heck of a spin! But that is just what they have done. We know too well - repeat a lie often enough and it will soon be believed.

The first thing the "biosolids" companies had to do was to change the term "sewage sludge" to "biosolids" ... slightly more appetizing, more pleasing to the ear, and more marketable from a PR point of view. They then began a campaign of misinformation - persuading people that "biosolids" was somehow, magically, a substantially different substance than mere sewage sludge. This was simply not true. Adding lime, or wood chips and subjecting it to a short, period of "composting" does not eliminate the vast majority of pollutants in the sludge. Calling it by a new name is merely putting lipstick on a pig. The next strategy was to coopt the language of the environmental movement. Presto! - this toxic goulash, the concentrated residuals from our treatment facilities became "compost" and an "organic amendment" and "green" and "sustainable" and part of a circular economy! This assault on language, and on logic has been staggering. Cloaked now in the language of environmentalism, and sporting all sorts of "green" names, the "biosolids" companies spread out across the provinces and states of North America looking for land to pollute, and suckers to accept toxic residuals under the guise of "fertilizer." As Deborah Koons Garcia,  the film Director of "Future of Food" and "Symphony of the Soil" said in a public speech on sewage sludge some years ago, "Turning agricultural lands to a toxic waste dump, I think, is a big mistake."
(Note too that sometimes, branded products containing sewage sludge are bagged up or sold in piles at nurseries or at city composting facilities.  Some is given away or sold as “compost.” Some is dried and made into pellets, bagged, and sold as fertilizer. Sometimes sludge is “blended” into bagged fertilizers. Labeling is vague, and the bags never tell you the full range of pollutants contained in the "medium." In BC, Nutifor, OgoGrow, NutriGrow are three examples of this to watch out for. For more on this see - )

Is this stuff really so bad?

Dr. David Lewis, a microbiologist, has said this sludge represents "a world of pollution in one product." Our sewers have become the "super-highways" for our cities' toxic wastes. We are now at a point in history where we are potentially exposed to some 85,000+ man-made chemicals. Most of these will eventually find their way to our sewer systems. Many of these are endocrine-disrupters or carcinogenic. Our sewage system was built to collect almost everything that goes down the drain, which creates a dangerous cocktail of domestic, commercial, hospital, industry and street run-off sources of sewage and septic sludges - things like solvents, PCBs, dioxins, metals, pharmaceuticals, microplastics, flame retardants, superbugs & prions.

But surely they test this sewage muck for possible problems?

Canadian and American governing bodies can't assure the safety of using "biosolids" on soils.
Here's Why -
The sad truth is that out of the thousands of pollutants in biosolids, they only test for about a dozen pollutants - mostly metals. On top of this, it may come as a surprise that both the CCME (Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment)  and in BC, OMRR (Organic Matter Recycling Regulation), rely on incomplete, outdated and faulty risk assessments to assure the public of the safety of its "biosolids" programs.

This past November in the USA, the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), published a notice ( saying it could no longer assure the public that biosolids were safe. They admit they do not know the risks involved with spreading hundreds of pollutants onto farm soils - they identified 352 toxins of special note. "EPA scientists said that without completing risk assessments on all of the pollutants found in biosolids they cannot say whether biosolids are safe … the biosolids program is at risk of not achieving its goal to protect public health and the environment." Canada also lacks data on these same pollutants, and needs to make a similar public statement - safety cannot be assured.

There is a more sinister issue here however. Imagine putting thousands of pollutants together in one substance, as is done with "biosolids." Now you don't have to be a chemist, to guess that something might just happen within that toxic mixture. In fact, the analysis of these hazards and the risk assessment strategies based on chemical mixtures is one of the hot topics in environmental and human health research today.

Since Paracelsus (born in 1493) stated “the dose makes the poison,” this idea has formed the basis for the regulation of toxic chemicals, including the use of pesticides and pharmaceuticals. We now know that the truth of this observation is incomplete. It is not only the dose, but also the type of chemical, the timing of exposure, the combination of chemicals and individual risk factors that combine to produce toxic effects. Sadly, our government bases its risk assessment solely on this 500 year old perspective. Please note that CCME and OMRR (and the EPA in the USA) make no attempt to look at this issue of exposure to multiple pollutants, nor to the possible synergies between pollutants when evaluating the safety of "biosolids." Instead, they rely simply on the rudimentary risk framework of Paracelsus - and look at individual toxin levels - which admittedly, are usually, (though not always see Suzuki Foundation toxin tests of Biosolids -, in low levels individually.

A new study (January, 2019 has just been published by a group of scientists from various universities around the UK, which has clearly demonstrated the danger of this "cocktail mix" of pollutants found in all biosolids - it is titled - "Long-term exposure to chemicals in sewage sludge fertilizer alters liver lipid content in females and cancer marker expression in males" As it states,  "this study shows that chronic EC (environmental chemical) exposure, via sewage sludge, at concentrations and complexity relevant to humans ... is a significant contributor to abnormal liver physiology and … causes major physiological changes in the liver, likely to affect multiple systems in the body and which may predispose individuals to increased disease risks"  (Note that the UK, and the EU generally, have tougher pollutant guidelines than we do in North America for "biosolids" - they followed the "biosolids" application rules … and still the sheep began to show abnormalities).

As the scientists taking part in the "Halifax Project" have shown, it is the exposure to a variety of toxins in low-dose that can cause cancer. (The Halifax Project took place between 2012 and 2015 and it involved more than 350 cancer researchers and physicians from 31 countries …  focused on the carcinogenic potential of low dose exposures to mixtures of chemicals in the environment - see The absurd situation we have operating within the "biosolids business" is that we have soil specialists, agronomists etc. determining the safety of something they are utterly unqualified to make such pronouncements about - this is more properly the purview of chemists, doctors, and oncologists.

 The testing regime employed by this waste disposal practice, is wholly inadequate, and done by those actually involved in the business of pushing this "product" on people with little or no knowledge of what they are actually putting on their lands. As Dr. Rayne, a microbiologist who has written on the particular issue of flame retardants in biosolids,  has noted, "An unimaginably large number of chemical and biological contaminants exist in these materials, and they persist in the product up to, and after, land disposal. Scientific investigations have identified only a tiny fraction of the total contaminant load. We cannot even say with any degree of confidence what the true range of contaminant risk is from the sludge ... Governments are playing Russian roulette with sewage sludge. Over time, there is a high probability this game will be lost at the public's expense." (see

Is this just a small issue blown out of proportion by a few noisy activists?

The "biosolids" business thrives in darkness. Pushing poop and pollutants is not usually a topic for everyday conversation, and these companies try hard to keep it quiet. However, there is growing opposition to this reckless practice. These are not the beliefs of some fringe group. Organizations like the Suzuki Foundation for instance, has stated - "The David Suzuki Foundation does not support the dumping of sewage sludge, treated or otherwise, on farm land.  The potential of heavy metal and chemical contamination of crops grown in soils that are “conditioned” with sludge from sewage treatment plants, and the potential for impacts on animal and human health from consuming those crops, raises concerns." So too, the Sierra Club has made the following assertion - "Contaminants in wastewater residuals such as sewage sludge threaten our food and health." Similarly scientists from some of the best institutions in the USA and Canada have asserted their opposition to land-disposed "biosolids."

 Prof. Murray McBride, Cornell University has noted that - "Once contaminated … the contamination will remain for decades or centuries" and, "Is it reasonable to conclude that there is little or no risk of land-applying a material (biosolids) containing unknown concentrations of thousands of chemicals with undetermined toxicities?"

 Prof. Jordan Peccia- Yale University states that - "biosolids contain heavy metals, hazardous organic chemicals, microbial pathogens, and antibiotic resistant bacteria … Metals and organic chemicals that resist biological mineralization can sorb to solid particles and also accumulate in sludge. These include polybrominated flame retardants, pharmaceuticals like Prozac and Tagamet, human hormones such as estrogen, antibiotics, narcotics including cocaine, and the metabolites of these compounds."

To get Organic Certification, farmers must prove that "biosolids" have not been used on the soils they grow their foods in, or graze their animals on. Food companies like  Heinz, Campbell’s, DelMonte, and Whole Foods, do not accept produce that is grown on land treated with biosolids. They consider it potentially toxic.

Many European countries are making great strides to shift away from this reckless practice. Switzerland has completely banned the use of biosolids on agricultural soils because of "the risk of irreversible damage to the soil, the danger to public health and possible negative effects on the quality of the food farmers produce"

The Swedish Government has recently noted that - "since biosolids contain environmental and health hazardous substances, drug residues and microplastics, our task force will propose a ban on spreading sewage sludge on farmland"

So too, the German Environment Agency recently stated that - "With the precautionary principle and in light of the pollutants found in biosolids, we deem the agricultural use of biosolids to be a serious public health & environmental hazard & advocate that this practice be phased out"

If we can't pour it in our oceans and lakes any more, or spread it thinly over our soils and hope for the best … what can be done with it?

Many countries have moved away from this reckless approach and are embracing new greener technologies. The goal should be not just to stop the present madness, but to "mine" this waste resource for its valuable content - things like nitrogen, phosphorus, and biogas / biocrude can be harvested from this sludge. Switzerland, Germany and Sweden for instance, have written legislation that requires this be done. Clean methods of incineration, as well as gasification and pyrolysis are approaches being adopted by countries around the world.

Think for a moment about just how absurd this "biosolids" business model really is. The wastewater treatment facilities have spent a great deal of time and effort collecting, concentrating, and segregating the pollutants out of the water ... so why on earth would we turn around and put those piles of toxins back into the environment we just eliminated them from? That is truly a short-sighted practice that merely supports a business model based on "pushing" pollution. Situating a gasification / pyrolysis (or clean incineration) plant directly beside the water facility would dramatically cut trucking costs, and cut the huge carbon emissions this constant transport inevitably involves.

An example of gasification - producing energy and biochar - Tennessee Gasification plant
An example from the UK - gasification of sludge - Yorkshire Water's Gasification Plant 
Pyrolysis of sewage sludge - syngas and biochar - Pyrochar - Cordis Europe 
There are new solutions appearing almost daily - We can make BRICKS out of biosolids, or we can
PAVE ROADS with it. Making Bio-Crude is also an option. These are just a few possibilities.

It is time we put an end to land disposal of our cities' toxic sewage waste. It is time we expose this "biosolids" business model for what it is - merely a method of toxin dispersal - reckless and short-sighted. It is time our cities embraced a truly "green" approach to dealing with its pollutants - trucking it out to rural landscapes is no longer acceptable!

Update - February 2020

This past week alone three articles were published which dramatically encapsulates these concerns.

  The Telegraph ( ) published an article - "Microplastics making their way to British farms in human sewage fertilizer" - in which they warn, "microplastics could harm soil ecosystems or crops either directly or through hormone-disrupting substances, and contain chemicals that could be released slowly as they break down over hundreds of years" Interestingly, the Canadian Government published its "Draft science assessment of plastic pollution 2020" this past week, where it states that - "It is estimated that 99% of microplastics are removed from the influent but are retained in sewage sludge ... Microplastics can therefore enter terrestrial environments through the application and use of sewage sludge as fertilizers for agriculture or landscaping purposes"  ( ). 

Another Important new scientific study just came out on a related topic - "Pharmaceutical and Personal Care Products: From Wastewater Treatment into Agro-Food Systems"
( ) In this, the scientists demonstrate that "Use of biosolids in agriculture leads to soil contamination with PPCPs and their metabolites, providing a route for accumulation in food produce, which poses potential risks to environmental and human health" and that  "The extensive use of biosolids in agriculture introduces PPCPs and other contaminants of emerging concern to arable soil and has the potential to contaminate food produce, constituting a route for human exposure"  It is worth pointing out that the OMRR guidelines that Heyman and his government rely on to "assure safety" do not test for microplastics or pharmaceuticals - or other  CECs (contaminants of emerging concern) for that matter - sadly, out of the tens of thousands of pollutants known to be in biosolids, they test for barely a dozen!

A third major article was published this week by Greenpeace - "Secret Environment Agency report finds sewage sludge (biosolids) destined for English fields contaminated with microplastics, weedkiller, and "persistent organic pollutants" ( ). The article notes that - "Investigators commissioned by the agency found sewage waste destined for English crops contaminated with dangerous "persistent organic pollutants" like dioxins, furans, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons at "levels that may present a risk to human health". They also reported evidence that these sludges, which are routinely spread as fertilizer on hundreds of farms, were widely contaminated with microplastics that could ultimately leave soil "unsuitable for agriculture".

Update - April 2020

New devastating critique of the practice of land applying pollutant-rich "biosolids" - "Microplastics and pollutants in biosolids have contaminated agricultural soils: An analytical study and a proposal to cease the use of biosolids in farmlands"
"This study examines the detrimental effects of the existing methods for recycling biosolids. Such methods produce negative consequences in terms of contaminating farmlands with microplastics, micropollutants, chemicals and pathogens. In addition the negative effects of stockpiling biosolids is likewise be examined."
"The agricultural applications of biosolids produce known biological and health concerns, and contamination of farmland through the accumulation of different types of pollutants is occurring despite governing authorities implementing restrictions to lessen their environmental burden."
"Furthermore emerging pollutants, such as microplastics, nanoplastics, pharmaceutical and industrial chemicals, are leading to further contamination of agricultural soils."
"... although guidelines address known pollutants and place ceiling concentrations upon them in order to mitigate their consequences, emerging pollutants, such as pharmaceuticals and chemicals used in the production of household items, have no such limits placed upon them. Thus they are uninhibited from accumulating in the soils on which they are applied."
"Environmental impact of biosolids stockpiles - while stockpiles remain untouched, they contribute to the wastewater treatment industry's damaging carbon footprint … they present a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide … and may also be responsible for polluting waterways, thus affecting the aquatic environment in addition to polluting the atmosphere." This Professor's points are further explored in this more recent article -
"Biosolids have a cocktail of nasty chemicals. It’s not just plastic – many industrial additives and chemicals have been found in wastewater and biosolids"
"This means they may accumulate in soils and affect the equilibrium of biological systems, with negative effects on plant growth. For example, researchers have found pharmaceutical chemicals in particular can reduce plant growth and inhibit root elongation"