Land Application of Sewage Sludge/Septage

Every time you flush your toilet or clean a paintbrush in your sink, you may be unwittingly adding toxins to fertilizer used to grow the food in your pantry.

Beginning in the early 1990s, millions of tons of potentially toxic sewage sludge have been applied to millions of acres of America’s farmland as food crop fertilizer.  Selling sewage sludge to farmers for use on cropland has been a favored government program for disposing of the unwanted byproducts from municipal wastewater treatment plants.  However, sewage sludge is anything but the benign fertilizer the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and our state governments says it is.

Sewage sludge includes anything that is flushed, poured, or dumped into our nation’s wastewater system – a vast, toxic stew of wastes collected from countless sources — from homes to chemical industries to hospitals.  The sludge being spread on our crop fields is a dangerous mix of heavy metals, industrial compounds, viruses, bacteria, drug residues and radioactive material. Hundreds of people have fallen ill after being exposed to sewage sludge fertilizer, suffering from respiratory distress, headaches, nausea, rashes, reproductive complications, cysts and tumors.

Despite the danger of using sludge in food production, federal regulations are unsettlingly inadequate.  The EPA monitors only 9 of the thousands of pathogens commonly found in sludge and rarely performs site inspections of sewage treatment plants or the farms that use sludge fertilizer. Regulations governing the use and disposal of sewage sludge have been criticized by both the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Research Council, as well as numerous medical professionals, engineers and activists.

Upper Missouri Waterkeeper works on the state level in Montana seeking to end the use of sewage sludge as an agricultural fertilizer through an immediate moratorium on its application to croplands. There are better technological means (at minimum primary treatment and/or processing at wastewater treatment facilities) for handling and disposing of our wastes, no matter how large or small.  Montana’s valuable agriculture tradition and the health of our communities and waterways are unfairly risked so long as sewage and septage sludge application is allowed to our farmlands.

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