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Fighting Over Sludge in Presidential Garden

Activated Sludge, Obama Garden

When Michele Obama planted her organic garden, some considered it an act of subterfuge as unpatriotic as supporting Honda instead of Ford. “Fresh foods grown conventionally are wholesome and flavorful yet more economical,” wrote the Mid- America CropLife Association. “If Americans were still required to farm to support their family’s basic food and fiber needs, would the U.S. have been leaders in the advancement of science, communication, education, medicine, transportation and the arts?” Good question — or so thought other food industry honchos who joined in the mud-slinging. For instance, Bob Young, an economist for the American Farm Bureau Federation, said, “We have no problem with this concept [of home organic gardens], but understand that you’re making lifestyle choices here about how you want your food produced. Fine. But don’t denigrate the other approaches to food production.”

In spite of the compost slinging, the First Lady ignored the naysayers and cultivated her garden so that it yielded more than 80 pounds of produce by the beginning of June. A true Victory Garden for the organic movement!

But alas, even as earthy, organic types cheered, representatives from the National Park Service went snooping around (I thought that was the NSA‘s job) and found that the garden was “swimming in sludge.” It all started with the discovery that the garden soil contained lead at 93 parts per million, which the press called “highly elevated content.” The EPA recommends against growing food in soil with lead at 100 ppm maximum, and the 93 ppm figure was a bit too close.

So where did these high levels of lead in the First Garden come from? The press initially blamed lead paint runoff from old décor, but then, the press found a new culprit: the Clintons. Oh joy, something else for the press to blame the Clintons for! It seems that back in the 1990s, the former president approved fertilizing the White House lawn with sewage sludge from a nearby wastewater plant. Why would Bill have done that? Because it was cheap, easy, came highly recommended, and was actually considered organic by government regulators at the time. (Activated, or processed, sludge still is.)

In fact, the most shocking thing here isn’t that the White House lawn turns out to be sludge central, but rather, that sludge is so commonly used as a fertilizer that it ends up even there, with the official stamp of approval. Basically, sludge is very widely used as a cheap fertilizing spray on agricultural crops and pubic lands throughout the US, and it’s marketed under such respectable-sounding names as COMpro and Orgro. But just what is it? Why all the fuss?

Well, consider that its other name is “Activated Sludge” and you have a good idea. In its raw, untreated form, it is a goopy dark substance as gross as it sounds, and far more toxic, containing residue of basically anything that goes down the drain, including industrial chemicals, heavy metals, pesticides, and prescription drugs. Current EPA guidelines allow 90,000 different industrial chemicals to be present in sludge (it’s amazing that many industrial chemicals exist), and many of those are known carcinogens or hormone disrupters. Sludge overflows with heavy metals, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and so on. Guidelines allow for up to 3 00ppm of lead in sludge, just to give an example of how unsavory it can be on just that one parameter alone. In other words, it’s nasty stuff, varying in composition depending on what waste got added to the mix — but certainly not what most people want their tomatoes to be cultivated in, if only they knew.

Growers don’t need to declare if they use sludge in their fields, and so consumers haven’t a clue — even if they buy organic where activated sludge is allowable (or buy from the Heinz or Del Monte companies, which do not use crops grown in sludge). In theory, US organic producers are now prohibited from raw sludge farming, making the price of organic seem well worth it. Nevertheless, things are not always what they seem; organic is not always organic. In any case, the White House garden will never be decreed organic, though the Obamas use no spray or pesticides, because the sludge-contaminated soil violates organic standards.

As for the lead that was found in the soil, some say the press overreacted, that 93ppm is a quite insignificant level. According to Dr. Gabriel Filippelli, associate chair of the Center for Environmental Health, “But 93ppm is laughably low to begin with. It would be nearly impossible to find a garden anywhere with less than 93ppm.” His colleague, Dr. Kimberly Gray who directs Environmental Sciences at Northwestern University, said, “This is about politics, not lead. It’s inflammatory. 93ppm is well below background lead for an urban environment. It’s what you’d expect just from atmospheric deposition.” In other words, the air carries that much lead from things like auto emissions.

Not everyone agrees that lead levels near 100ppm should be shrugged off. As noted above, even the EPA says you shouldn’t grow food in soil with lead content at that level. In fact, the EPA says that soil above 56ppm, “does not provide adequate protection of terrestrial ecosystems.” The fact that the soil in our cities tends to have lead levels much higher than 100ppm because of emissions and perhaps from sludge residue doesn’t mean that it should be there. (By the way, I recommend that you don’t think about this the next time you buy “locally grown” produce at your nearby farmers’ market.)

But again, it’s not just lead that sludge spreads around. Though the advocates of sludge assure us that it’s safe and, in fact, wise to use it, evidence keeps mounting that sludge makes people sick. Those who live near fields fertilized by sludge find entire families displaying similar symptoms, or entire communities devastated by the same type of cancer or other disease.

Bottom line? Have your soil tested before you plant your garden, particularly if you live in an urban area, grow and buy only organic, and if you do find that you have contaminated soil, don’t despair: you can always make yourself a raised bed garden.