Tuesday, July 07, 2009


Obama’s garden, our food, swamped in toxic sludge residue

by Larry Geller

Remember Michelle Obama’s great idea to grow a White House garden and keep it organic? She even resisted pressure from the pesticide lobby to spray their poisons on it.

Unfortunately, something happened on the way to the realization of the First Lady's good intentions. Recently the National Park Service discovered that the White House lawn, where the garden was planted, contains highly elevated levels of lead -- 93 parts per million. It's enough lead for anyone planning to have children pick vegetables in that garden or eat produce from it to reconsider their plans: lead is highly toxic to children's developing organs and brain functions -- however, it's below the 400 ppm the EPA suggests is a threat to human health. [Huffington Post, The Obama Organic Family Garden: Swimming in Sludge?, 7/1/2009]

It seems that the White House lawn was contaminated with sewage sludge, promoted as safe fertilizer.

Worse, as you’ll read when you click on the link above, much of our food supply is similarly contaminated with lead and heavy metals by an industry that just wants to get rid of its crap, nevermind that it poisons children and big people.

Ok, a bit more, to encourage you to read the entire article:

So what is sludge, really? A stinking, sticky, dark-grey to black paste, it's everything homeowners, hospitals and industries put down their toilets and drains. Every material-turned-waste that our society produces (including prescription drugs and the sweepings of slaughterhouses), and that wastewater treatment plants are capable of removing from sewage, becomes sludge. The end product is a concentrated mass of heavy metals and carcinogenic, teratogenic, and hormone-disrupting chemicals, replete with antibiotic-resistant bacteria. There are some 80,000 to 90,000 industrial chemicals, including a host of dioxin-like deadly substances, which are allowed to be present in sludge under current EPA rules. What's worse, there's no way of knowing which toxic chemicals and heavy metals are entering the wastewater stream at any given time or in what concentrations. Sludge is always an unknown quantity, and therefore, assessing whether sludge is safe to use for growing food, is -- in practice -- impossible.

Farmers who care about what they grow know this, and -- despite the best efforts of government and the sludge industry -- growing food in sewage sludge is prohibited under the federal organic regulations. Still, sludge is still widely used as a cheap alternative to fertilizer, and unless you're buying organic produce, it's impossible to know if the food you eat was grown in it.

(Thanks to Viviane Lerner for pointer to this article)

Update: Check out the comments to this article, including the link that Joan Conrow provided to an article on toxic sludge.



to be honest, it freaks me out to think about this. but when i take a moment to consider how my food is grown -- and the physiology of the plants i eat -- i worry less. for instance, lead is generally not taken in and used in plant tissue. with high levels of lead, yes, you can get accumulation in leaves and stems and roots. but the fruit and the seeds of plants don't accumulate lead. so apples, oranges, peppers, egs plants, tomatoes, corn, etc... these are not a lead-poisoning concern.
in addition, its easy to say: "This soil has lead at 198 ppm! That's unsafe!" but the percentage of organic matter and the biotic activity also matters. if there's a lot of microbial life and a lot of hummus in the soil, plants will take up less of the lead and other toxins.

finally, gloves are good things to wear.

Justin, thanks for your comment.

I had wondered about that, in other words, what is the relationship between lead or heavy metals in the soil and in the resulting food. The article did not address that.

This does not mean the food is safe to eat until someone figures it out. The article did mention adverse health effects due to sludge use. And look at carrots and other root vegetables, in constant contact with the poison.

Possibly there is some reliable evidence out there. Meanwhile, safety dictates avoiding food grown in contaminated soils.

The craziest part is the ongoing PR campaign to rename sludge (a moniker that carries an appropriate negative weighting given the crap found in it) to "bio-solids". Check out the Waste Management commercials. Not all sludge is created equal. Sludge from non-industrialized, agrarian towns, is orders of magnitude cleaner than the sludge that comes from a medium-sized city. I remember reading an article back in my enviro-politics days about a WM or WM subsidiary convincing some flower farmers to put the processed, dried, and made into nice pellets, but still toxic as all hell, "bio-solids" on their crop. While the flowers grew, the farmers started complaining of odd health problems and soil samples contained highly elevated amounts of heavy metals and PCBs and such. I haven't followed up much on the subject since, but I knew it must still be an issue. I'll see if I can locate the original article.

Seth, if you do find it, please post another comment. I'll amend the main article so that readers will be encouraged to check the comments.

John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton covered this issue in their 1995 book "Toxic Sludge Is Good For You -- Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry. And here we are, 14 years later, with the same old same old. Here's the relevant chapter.

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