THE BLOG

The Obama Organic Family Garden: Swimming in Sludge?

08/01/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Andrew Kimbrell Founder and Executive Director of the Center for Food Safety

When Michelle Obama created an organic vegetable garden on the White House lawn earlier this year, the move was greeted with positive headlines and excitement among the food advocacy community. Here, we thought, was a First Lady who understood the importance of locally grown, whole and organic foods in her family's diet.

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.

What caused this alarming contamination of the White House lawn? Some news outlets speculated that residue from lead paint might have caused the toxicity. However an article running on Mother Jones online has a more probable explanation. During the 1990s, the Clintons agreed to have the South Lawn of the White House "fertilized" with ComPRO, a commercially available "compost made from a nearby wastewater plant's solid effluent, a.k.a. sewage sludge."

So, the White House lawn became a highly visible example of a little-known, widely conducted practice, "land application." This means disposing of sewage sludge by spraying it over public lands, including parks, and also on an untold number of acres of farmland where our food is grown. Sadly, it's completely legal under current, grossly inadequate EPA rules.

Apparently, the spreading of sewage sludge at the White House was a public relations ploy by the Environmental Protection Agency and, no doubt, the sludge industry to convince the public that using sludge in gardens and farms is as safe as using normal compost. The promotion didn't stop there; as part of its PR effort, EPA offered a $150,000 prize to the winner of a contest to re-brand sludge with a more benign sounding name. The chosen euphemism?: "biosolid". It's a term the agency and the industry consistently use to hide the reality of what sludge is.

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.

Remarkably, the EPA creators of the sludge program claim they didn't anticipate any health problems to be associated with spraying sludge near people's homes or on their food. They assumed that natural conditions would disperse the toxins, and that bad bacteria would die as they naturally do in rich, aerobic soil and in compost. But sewage sludge is not soil; no matter how you treat it, it will never have the characteristics, either physical or biological, that make good soil and good compost so effective at killing human pathogens. It's toxic, and it lays there for years, still toxic.

So when people living or working in the vicinity of sludged fields and when diary cows and other farm animals grazing on sludged land have gotten sick from heavy metal, chemical or pathogen based maladies, the EPA has either ignored, denied or, in some cases, even fraudulently covered it up. However it's getting harder for the agency to ignore the toll of sludged land as we see increasing reports in adjacent communities of elevated levels of cancer or deaths believed to be related to sludge exposure. In some areas where sludge has been heavily used, whole families are evincing the same symptoms: sores in their nasal passages, chronic staph infections, crippling headaches and sinus troubles. Yet -- despite the mounting evidence -- EPA wants to continue to promote sludge as a benign alternative to fertilizer.

The Obamas may be the newest sludge victims. Certainly Michelle Obama's hopes of having a truly organic garden and healthy vegetables for her own children and other children who visit the White House have been dashed. The impact on their lives is symbolic; it's not just the Obamas under threat, it's all of us. Municipalities around the country have jumped on the bandwagon to sell their "biosolids" to sludge companies, a convenient solution to profitably rid themselves of hazardous waste. Over the last several years, we have all become unwilling guinea pigs, testing the safety of foods raised on sewage-sludged land. We're also unknowing guinea pigs, since none of this produce is labeled to show how it was grown.

What can you do about this? Buying certified organic produce raised under rules that forbid this practice is a safe start. Next, let's urge the EPA to place a permanent ban on "land application" of sewage sludge; our foods should never be grown in hazardous waste. And in the best spirit of NIMBY, the Obamas, after removing that contaminated soil from their lawn, should be the first family to push the EPA to halt the sludging of our public lands and farmlands.