(Beyond Pesticides, October 9, 2012) Sewage sludge is big business in Channahon, IL, but many residents who live near fields treated with the fertilizer believe they’re the ones paying the price. Farms in the area began applying the “biosolids” in 2010, and residents say that’s when their health issues began, according to Morris Daily Herald.
Biosolids, otherwise known as sewage sludge, are composed of dried microbes previously used to process wastewater in treatment plants. The material is increasingly being used in conventional agriculture, but its application is explicitly forbidden in organic production. This is because the sludge can contain high concentrations of toxic contaminants, such as pesticides, detergents, estrogenic hormones, antibiotics, dioxins, PCBs, flame retardants, and heavy metals.
Past research gives credence to Channahon residents’ claims of adverse health effects as a result of living near sludge coated fields. A 2002 study revealed the material to be associated with an increased prevalence of Staphylococcus aureus infections, a condition known to cause skin rashes and respiratory problems, for people located in close proximity to biosolid application sites.
“What they are doing is making a toxic dump of our area. It’s disgusting,” said Channahon resident Pat Budd in an interview with Kris Stadalsky of Morris Daily Herald. Residents are particularly concerned about run-off reaching local streams and polluting their well water, although studies from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found no evidence of this occurring. Additionally, students at nearby schools routinely jog on the road near the farms, and have been seen running through the treated fields.
Channahon resident Mary Lou Bozich was diagnosed with a duodenum tumor this year after having no signs of the tumor the year before. “I just find it very weird that two years ago I had no problem,” Ms. Bozich said to the Herald. “Is it from that (biosolids)? I don’t honestly know. How would they prove it one way or another?”
Resident Pearl Addington makes particular note of the smell emanating from the sludge treated fields. “I have asthma and I can’t even leave my house,” she said to the Herald, “I am scared (because) I can’t breathe.” Although EPA requires sewage sludge to be immediately incorporated into the soil, in the words of Jeff Hutton of the Illinois EPA (IEPA), “[T]here’s still going to be an odor. Odors are hard to quantify.”
According to the Herald, of the 400 thousand tons of sewage sludge produced in Illinois, 75 percent of it is used in conventional farming, and a total of 280 acres of Channahon are now treated yearly with the material. Spreading companies are paid around $15 per cubic yard to haul away the treated sludge from Metro Chicago’s Water Reclamation District, and during an application up to 70 trucks will line up around a field to dump the material. The Herald indicates that a local company applies between five and ten dry tons of per acre of farmland. Some residents believe that the biosolid industry is more about making a profit than the health of local citizens. “There’s an enormous amount of money here,” said Pat Budd.
Studies are revealing disturbing trends associated with the use of sewage sludge. A 2009 study out of Sweden and a 2011 study in the journal Environmental Science and Technology indicate that sewage sludge may be contributing to the rise of antibiotic resistant bacteria. A 2010 study shows that when biosolids containing the chemical triclosan are applied to agricultural fields there is a potential for the material to break down into dioxin, a highly carcinogenic substance linked to decreased fertility, weakened immune system functions, altered sex hormones, miscarriages, and birth defects.
Sewage sludge also has a detrimental impact on the environment. Beyond Pesticides recently reported on how nanoparticles in biosolids, present due to their use in sunscreen, lotions, and cosmetics, and certain diesel fuels, can effect plant growth and development. The nanoparticles in sewage sludge can block leguminous crops from forming a symbiotic relationship with the beneficial bacteria that allow it to fix nitrogen from the air. This could cause farmers to apply increasing amounts of synthetic fertilizers to make up the difference. Additionally, sludge nanoparticles were shown to be taken up by the plant and located in the edible pods of soybeans, with unknown human health effects.
You can show that you disagree with the use of sewage sludge in agriculture by eating certified organic food, which does not allow the use of dried municipal waste microbes in its production. Additionally, be wary of any lawn fertilizers which claim to be “organic” or “natural” but list ingredients such as “biosolids,” “dried microbes,”, or “activated sewage sludge,” To find out more about the benefits certified organic products and production systems, visit Beyond Pesticides’ organic food program page, and keep up to date on the upcoming October 15-18, 2012 National Organic Standards Board meeting at our Keeping Organic Strong action page.
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.