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The difference between biosolids and sludge

By Andrew Mayo
Posted Thursday, September 22, 2011

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Pittsboro, NC - I whole-heartedly agree with Tom Glendinning's statement that the use of "biosolids," commonly known as poop, is a cornerstone of sound organic agriculture. Sludge is another story. Though heavily regulated, the use of sludge has been shown to have toxic effects on the ecosystem when used as fertilizer.

The sewage collected in wastewater facilities not only contains what you flush down your loo, including those heavy duty sterilizing chemicals, but also some industrial wastewater, stormwater runoff (which anyone at DENR I'm sure would go on at length about), and the harsh chemicals used to purify the water to a "drinkable" standard, one that allows for the presence of chemicals like chlorine, not present in nature and capable of destroying organic life, good or bad.

According to Joseph Jenkins, a formidable manure-composting authority, "In the upper atmosphere, chlorine molecules from air pollution gobble up ozone; in the lower atmosphere, they bond with carbon to form organochlorines. Some of the 11,000 commercially used organochlorines include hazardous compounds such as DDT, PCBs, chloroform and carbon tetrachloride. Organochlorines rarely occur in nature, and living things have little defense against them. They’ve been linked not only to cancer, but also to neurological damage, immune suppression and reproductive and developmental effects. When chlorine products are washed down the drain into a septic tank, they’re producing organochlorines. Although compost microorganisms can degrade and make harmless many toxic chemicals, highly chlorinated compounds are disturbingly resistant to such biodegradation."

The fact that we use clean, fresh water to collect waste and pump it into tanks, is not only wasteful, it provides a habitat for the pathogens residing in poo to concentrate, multiply, and become a bigger problem. See Europe in the middle ages, or the cholera epidemics of the last two centuries. Also, the anaerobic digestion that happens in the water-logged environment will leach out much of the valuable nitrogen that makes manure agriculturally valuable in the first place.

Toxification is a real problem, and something we cannot risk with our valuable farmland. Believe it or not, people are often irresponsible and all sorts of things get dumped down the drain. Think motor oil, pharmaceuticals... more than your average goldfish. And believe it or not, industrial waste is not always properly routed to containment vessels and that also ends up in the water supply. According to Gabriel Britton, author of "Wastewater Microbiology," sludge can be, and has been, contaminated with heavy metals, PCB's, chlorine, pathogens and other cancer-causing compounds.
Heavy metals are readily taken up by crops in place of other nutrients and will end up on your dinner plate. Many, many toxic substances have been dumped into every nook of our ecosystem, and I personally do not have faith that they will properly regulate the use of chemicals in our country, chiefly because there are so many such chemicals on the market that are being used right now.

The potential soil fertility lost from our mismanagement of waste is tragic. We eat the nutrients that come from the soil by way of plants, and the nutrition should cycle back accordingly. It only makes sense. There are alternatives to waste management and it is time that we had a serious discussion about them, and get our ____ straight.

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The difference between biosolids and sludge

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