Beware toxic ‘organic’ compost

The Oconee Enterprise, October 13, 2016:
Dr. David Lewis

The owner of Krimson Kafe in Watkinsville, Georgia asked recently if I would speak with her mother, Gloria, an avid organic gardener. Gloria was having problems with ‘organic’ compost from Athens-Clarke County’s composting facility on Lexington Highway. The facility delivered two truckloads, which she spread on flower beds under her windows and other areas of her shaded lot off Jefferson Road. She said it smelled really bad, and had assumed it contained chicken litter.


I contacted David King, a retired chemical engineer who helps me monitor a housing development in Greensboro built on land contaminated with hazardous chemical wastes. We gathered some sample jars and headed over to Gloria’s place. Shortly after Gloria spread the compost, all three of her cats that roamed about her yard began vomiting. Several days later, one of them died. She stretched out one of her arms, and showed us a bad case of ringworm that developed immediately after she spread the compost. The composting facility never advised her to wear gloves or a mask when handling the material.

When she returned to the composting facility to talk with the manager, Gloria was surprised to learn that the ‘organic’ compost she purchased was made with sewage sludge from Athens-Clarke County’s wastewater treatment plant. “It’s human wastes,” the manager explained.

Sewage sludges contain everything that enters the sewer system from households and businesses, including hazardous chemical and biological wastes from hospitals, dental offices, veterinary clinics and funeral homes. Many infectious agents, including the fungus that causes ringworm, can survive composting. So can all of the environmentally persistent chemical pollutants that enter the sewer system. Many of them cause cancer, birth defects and other health problems even at extremely low concentrations.

All that EPA regulates in treated sewage sludges applied to land is a few heavy metals. Complex mixtures of chemical wastes found in all sewage sludges are just the kind of pollutants organic gardeners go to great lengths to avoid. They’re the same harmful chemicals EPA strictly regulates in air and water at millions of times lower concentrations.

Understandably, Gloria was upset that Athens-Clarke County doesn’t inform gardeners that its ‘organic’ compost may contain sewage-related chemical wastes – the same chemicals, for example, that cause cancer from breathing second-hand smoke. While the USDA prohibits treated sewage sludges from being used on commercial organic farms, it doesn’t require labeling these same products when sold to home gardeners.

Fortunately, Athens-Clarke County removed its ‘sewer compost’ from Gloria’s property; and her two surviving cats recovered. My related YouTube video, filmed in the Catholic Center at the University of Georgia to commemorate Pope Francis’ environmental encyclical, is posted on the Focus for Health website below. It’s titled: “Destroy pollutants instead of regulating them!”

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David Lewis, Ph.D.

Former U.S. EPA Research Microbiologist

David Lewis is an internationally recognized research microbiologist whose work on public health and environmental issues, as a senior-level Research Microbiologist in EPA’s Office of Research & Development and member of the Graduate Faculty of the University of Georgia, has been reported in numerous news articles and documentaries from TIME magazine and Reader’s Digest to National Geographic.

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Gerald Parkoff

Dear Dr. Lewis,
I have read your book Science for Sale with great interest and I am one of your fans. If you check my website on this topic:
I have included two of your lectures towards the bottom of the article. After studying your book and the information that I have posted, I realized that my father who died in 1993 after suffering for ten years from Multiple System Atrophy probably contracted this medicine on the Lawrence Golf Course in Lawrence, L.I., N.Y where he played golf numerous times a week after retirement.
My guess is that recycled neurotoxic biosludge was a normal practice before EPA Rule 503 was put into effect, and that the rule merely formalized the practice. You can tell me if I am wrong.
I was so astonished by your account of Rule 503. It was like Science Fiction, bad Science Fiction. I have thought about nothing else for about a week or so, since I finally picked up your book. (I had to finish Suzanne Humphries Dissolving Illusions first. )
You write on page 37: “the only way to make complex organic chemical pollutants become non-carcinogenic, non-mutagenic, and non-toxic is to use extreme heat to break thelm down to their simplext building blocks, that is, CO-2and water, and then recycle or immobilize any residual heavy metals and radionuclides.”
At the bottom of my post, I include a short article by Dr. Andy Harris on The Hazards of Medical Waste. He seems to disagree with your comment which I quoted above and offers suggestions as to how to neutralize medical waste. He lists five methodologies and then states that it is not in his province to discuss them in depth. Then I discovered in the adjacent article by WHO , Safe Management of Wastes from Health-Care Activities, Second Edition, 2013, starting at page 116 a listing of the different methodologies for disposing of medical waste.
I then realized three things. This subject is totally beyond my grasp and is the subject for engineers and/or microbiologists to study the best detox methods for each toxic compound or metal. Then one must consider the technological feasibility and the cost. No matter what the cost, none of this will excuse Rule 503 and its implementation. The topic is a little like disposing of nuclear waste. It may be that if we cannot get rid of the waste of human activities in a safe manner, the activities themselves will have to be abandoned if human life is going to continue on Earth. The only rational explanation to excuse the managers of the EPA for Rule 503 is the cost of alternative disposal methods. But clearly, once the mechanism was set up, with a Sludge Industry in place (Synagro and others), so then private interests would pre-empt public interest no matter what the science.
Perhaps you and/or others will devote an entire book to this topic of waste disposal (if it hasn’t been written already.) So far, I only found the WHO study, but I will look further.
Finally, just a side comment on your chapter on Religion. “According to the Hebrew Law of Moses, anyone who transgresses any part of it is guilty of transgressing all of it.” (James 2:10). It is unfortunate that you chose to characterize all of Jewish Law from one quote by James. I could write many pages about this but I will be brief. There are numerous places in the Torah (The Old Testament) which allude to repentance. I can make you a list of them upon request, in Hebrew with English Translation. Furthermore, there are many transgressions listed in the Torah , from slander, to stealing, to murder- and many more. If you violate one rule, such as slandering, you are not guilty of murder! How could there be such a legal system? Additionally, Maimonides, in his Magnum Opus, The Mishneh Torah, has an entire chapter devoted to Tshuva (Repentance.) On Rosh HaShannah and Yom Kippur, we are required as a nation and as individuals to repent for any sins we may have transgressed. But no where is it implied that you cannot repent and certainly if you transgress in one area of behavior, it does not mean you have transgressed everything. (You can even repent for murder, but such repentance is not complete without capital punishment.)
I hope you will take these remarks in the spirit with which I offer them. Jewish Law is the foundation of Western Ethics, as we commonly think of it. There is much that we can discuss – such as why Jews were hated and persecuted by the Church for over 1000 years. I even have exellent books written by Christian scholars on this topic.
You will see this caption at the start of my article on Biosludge:
You shall do no unrighteousness in judgment, in meteyard, in weight or in measure. (Leviticus 19:35)
Our great commentator Rashi from the 12th century explains this passage as follows:
“You shall do no unrighteousness in judgment,”, if this verse refers to a lawsuit, it has already been been stated in verse 15, “Ye shall do no unrighteousness in judgment.” What then is the “judgment” that is taught here? It is the “meteyard, weight, and measure.” This teaches that he who measures is called a judge, for if he deals falsely in measuring, he is as one who corrupts justice, and is called unrighteous, hated, and abominable, accursed, and a detestation, and causes the five things which are stated regarding a judge: He defiles the land, and he profanes the Name of G-d, and he causes the Divine Presence to be removed, and he casts the people of Israel to the sword, and he exiles them from their land (Sifra). “in meteyard’, this a land measure, “in weight,” to be understood in its usual meaning, “or in measure”, this is the liquid and dry measure. “ (Rashi)
If you study Rashi carefully, I believe you will be astonished as to how well this quotation applies to Biosolids and Rule 503.
My best regards to you,
May you continue in your noble work and let us together pray for the Welfare of The United States and all of mankind.
p.s. you may be interested in this site which I have created:
Gerald Parkoff
Efrat , Israel

Focus For Health Team

Dear Mr. Parkoff,

I am greatly indebted to you for taking so much of your time to comment on by book, and the issue of land application of treated sewage sludges a.k.a. biosolids. Time is so precious. It’s such a great gift to give someone else, specially a stranger.

Your extensive postings related to sewage sludge biosolids give readers a lot to think about. It’s an excellent resource. So is your entire website devoted to honest government. I’m honored to have some of my work mentioned on it. It still amazes me today, as it did several decades ago, to think that the U.S. EPA’s solution to water pollution is to concentrate all of the toxic chemicals on land where we all live, work and play – and grow our food.

To answer a few of your specific questions:

Yes, EPA has promoted land application of biosolids since the late 1970s. Prior to 1993, when the 503 rule was passed, EPA regulations on the practice were much stricter.

Yes, cost is the main factor in limiting the use of thermal processes to destroy organic chemical pollutants in sewage sludge, and tie up traces of heavy metals, e.g. by activating carbon during pyrolysis. The end product, activated charcoal, keeps carbon from going back into the atmosphere and ties up traces of heavy metals, except cadmium, which has to be recovered or prevented from entering the wastewater treatment plant at high concentrations.

Regarding comments about religion in my book, I haven’t gone back to review what I wrote. I’m scrambling to catch a flight to Washington at the moment. But I certainly get your points about repentance, and don’t disagree.

In other words, I don’t look at repentance as non-essential. I only try to explain the difference between repenting from specific practices based on Jewish commandments versus repenting from not treating others as we would want to be treated (i.e., the Golden Rule). I view the Golden Rule as having repentance inherently built into its very fabric. For example, if I treat my wife as I want her to treat me, then I must stop committing fornication.

The difference lies in motivation. If I’m motivated by love for my wife, then I won’t even want to sleep with someone else. Hence, I don’t even commit fornication in my heart. As Jesus taught, if a man even so much as looks at another woman with lust, he commits fornication in his heart (and, therefore, is condemned by the Law). I’m sorry this subject isn’t clear in my book. I wish my writing skills were as good as what you have written on your website.

I like your explanations of how the Law of Moses could be used to prohibit land application of sewage sludge. To me, the Golden Rule also applies. If I love my neighbor, I will not contaminate his land with harmful pollutants, which environmental scientists have shown to cause cancer, birth defects, neurological damage (and on and on) in air and water at far, far lower concentrations.

Thanks for everything, and best always,

David L. Lewis, Ph.D., Research Director
Focus for Health Foundation, Watchung, NJ ;


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