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Andrew Kimbrell Headshot

Use the Precautionary Principle

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I appreciate Eddie Gehman Kohan's passion for the Obama's Kitchen Garden and all that it represents, and I concur that it is a source of inspiration for people around the world. I specifically mention in my last piece the First Lady's good intentions and the excitement over the garden from those in the sustainable food community.

As someone who has devoted over twenty years to helping develop and defend organic standards and to fighting technologies that threaten food safety, seed biodiversity and farmer communities, I look forward to an Administration that promotes the organic rule and expands its ethic to cover more of America's food crops.

Where we strongly disagree is about the safety of using sewage sludge for growing crops. Let me repeat that the national organic rule for which so many of us fought for so many years specifically lists sewage sludge as a "prohibited method." So it is at least misleading to say as she does that the Obama garden is an inspiration for "organic sourcing" when, however unwittingly, it's plants have been grown in a manner prohibited under national organic standards. I specifically do not blame the Obamas for this; to the contrary, I wrote that they are the "victims" of a public relations stunt by a prior administration.

My colleagues working on sewage sludge impacts include two former government researchers; we have collectively spent decades studying the issue. It is Ms Kohan's, not our, view of sewage sludge that is "shaky." She should acquaint herself with the real facts about the levels of heavy metals, priority pollutants and the myriad other toxins in sludge. There is ample evidence that coming into contact with or unknowingly consuming it can cause severe illness and worse (see www.RILES.org for dozens of relevant studies).

I've met many people who are suffering from the effects of "land application of biosolids" -- or in plain English, people who've been exposed to toxic sewage sludge. I've also met with farmers whose cattle have died and whose land has become infertile due to sewage sludge application. If you need further evidence, please see a recent federal district court (McElmurray v. U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, 535 F.Supp.2d 1318 (S.D.Ga. Feb. 25, 2008) which not only confirms the devastating impact sewage sludge has on farms but also notes that for years, senior Bush EPA official used misleading and even fraudulent science to defend the sewage sludge program and also illegally quashed legitimate scientific inquiry into the real impacts of "biosolids". I think that Ms. Kohan and I would agree -- and certainly, President Obama has been clear -- that in the future we can do a lot better than this kind of regulatory whitewashing and scientific chicanery.

As for the lead issue, it is mostly the soil I worry about. I'm sure that Ms. Kohan and the folks she interviewed are aware that a leading way that small children get poisoned is through contact with lead-contaminated soils (on their fingers and then in their mouths) and residues on food. This is becoming increasingly serious: the CDC has found that "blood lead levels once considered safe are now considered hazardous, with no known threshold." Even very low levels can have severe adverse impacts on the central nervous system and other critical biological systems in children.

As for the 93 ppm standard, by analogy I would bring to your attention a recent case settled in December 15, 2008, where Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley, along with the Attorneys General of 38 other states, reached a settlement agreement with Mattel, Inc., over excessive concentrations of lead paint in the company's toys in 2007. Under the settlement, the new standards are 90 ppm for lead paint and surface coatings, and 300 ppm total lead for substrates.

In my piece I did not state that anyone was being "poisoned" intentionally or unintentionally, nor do I know for certain that small children working in the garden are coming in contact with that lead contaminated soil. I have not analyzed the food being served from this garden, nor the soil the children have come in contact with. I merely said that, among other explanations, the use of sewage sludge was a potential cause of the reported lead contamination, and given the latest understanding we have of lead, the Obamas should "reconsider" the status quo at their garden.

I stand by those words and would urge readers to seriously consider them. The precautionary principle should always be used, and at the White House, the lead contaminated soil should be removed, replaced with organic compost. That would be the safe and truly organic way.

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