Thou art eating raw sewage, milord

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Cows standing in field looking at camera
“Did somebody say feces?”
Image: JW LTD (Getty Images)

Americans flush about 300 million pounds of cold, hard fecal matter every day—but what’s left over after that wastewater is cleaned and discharged? ’Tis poop, milord. Well, technically it’s something called “biosolid sludge,” and the waste management industry apparently sells it as fertilizer. The Guardian reports that it’s been infiltrating the food chain and making people sick for years:

“Now the practice is behind a growing number of public health problems. Spreading pollutant-filled biosolids on farmland is making people sick, contaminating drinking water and filling crops, livestock and humans with everything from pharmaceuticals to PFAS.”

The situation is pretty dire. One University of North Carolina study found 75% of people living near farms that used biosolids had health issues like burning eyes, nausea, vomiting, and even boils. So, why are farmers doing this? According to The Guardian, the sludge is expensive to dispose of because it has to be landfilled. With that in mind, the waste management industry repackages the sludge as ultra-rich, ultra-cheap fertilizer, coating the nation’s farmland in layers of human excrement to turn a profit. Actually, it’s not just farmland: The Guardian reports that, in 2019, about 60% of sewage sludge was spread across farmland, gardens, and even schoolyards. It’s like my grandmother used to say: the grass is always greener where there’s poop.

So, what’s a farmer to do? The EPA does allow the use of biosolids, although the agency’s site cautions against the “distinctive smell” associated with the product. (Once again, ’tis poop.) But some farmers and environmentalists are understandably wary of the practice, which is why companies like GP Solutions are focusing on waste-free fertilizer alternatives. As more and more companies work to to reduce toxic sludge in the nation’s food chain, farmers will, with any luck, have the resources they need to end unsafe practices. Now I just have to figure out what to tell the members of my cover band, Sister Sludge.