The Republic of T.

Black. Gay. Father. Vegetarian. Buddhist. Liberal.

Let Them Eat Sludge

This is one of those news stories that sometimes stop me in my tracks with just a headline. This one lured me in with a headline and then hit me over the head with the first paragraph.

It all started with a headline that read,“Sludge tested as lead-poisoning fix.” But it was the recipe — and the selection of “test subjects” — that did me in.

Scientists using federal grants spread fertilizer made from human and industrial wastes on yards in poor, black neighborhoods to test whether it might protect children from lead poisoning in the soil. Families were assured the sludge was safe and were never told about any harmful ingredients.

Nine low-income families in Baltimore row houses agreed to let researchers till the sewage sludge into their yards and plant new grass. In exchange, they were given food coupons as well as the free lawns as part of a study published in 2005 and funded by the Housing and Urban Development Department.

The Associated Press reviewed grant documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act and interviewed researchers. No one involved with the $446,231 grant for the two-year study would identify the participants, citing privacy concerns. There is no evidence there was ever any medical follow-up.

Comparable research was conducted by the Agriculture Department and Environmental Protection Agency in a similarly poor, black neighborhood in East St. Louis, Ill.

Heck of a job.As an aside, it’s at least worth pointing out that the 2005 study happened on the watch of under-investigation and on-his-way-out HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson (pictured with Bush, above). Jackson’s HUD funded a study to dump (OK, processed) human and industrial waste on the front yards of poor, black families. Shouldn’t be that much of a surprise, since this is the same Alphonso Jackson who in 2006 ignored the warnings of a mortgage collapse, dismissed the impending wave of foreclosures that would devastate minority communities as “short-term correction,” and pushed for legislation to make it easier for federally backed lenders to give mortgages to risky borrowers, and proposed a rule to make detecting and proving mortgage fraud more difficult.

So, am I reading this right? Did the government say to these families, “Here’s some food stamps, if you let us dump shit in your yard”? Does it sound kinda like “We’ll help you eat better if you let us see what happens if your kids eat shit”?

The idea that sludge — the leftover semisolid wastes filtered from water pollution at 16,500 treatment plants — can be turned into something harmless, even if swallowed, has been a tenet of federal policy for three decades.

In a 1978 memo, the EPA said sludge “contains nutrients and organic matter which have considerable benefit for land and crops” despite the presence of “low levels of toxic substances.”

But in the late 1990s the government began underwriting studies such as those in Baltimore and East St. Louis using poor neighborhoods as laboratories to make a case that sludge may also directly benefit human health.

Meanwhile, there has been a paucity of research into the possible harmful effects of heavy metals, pharmaceuticals, other chemicals and disease-causing microorganisms often found in sludge.

A series of reports by the EPA’s inspector general and the National Academy of Sciences between 1996 and 2002 faulted the adequacy of the science behind the EPA’s 1993 regulations on sludge.

Maybe that’s because the research is still being done, in economically disadvantaged black neighborhoods. But for the experiment to work, we have to wait for some poor black kids to eat shit dirt, and see what happens.

Chaney said the Baltimore neighborhoods were chosen because they were within an economically depressed area qualifying for tax incentives. He acknowledged the families were not told there have been some safety disputes and health complaints over sludge.

“They were told that it was composted biosolids that are available for sale commercially in the state of Maryland. I don’t think there’s any other further disclosure required,” Chaney said. “There was danger before. There wasn’t danger because of the biosolids compost. Composting, of course, kills pathogens.”

The Baltimore study concluded that phosphate and iron in sludge can increase the ability of soil to trap more harmful metals including lead, cadmium and zinc. If a child eats the soil, this trapping can let all the material pass safely through a child’s system.

In a newsletter, the EPA-funded Community Environmental Resource Program assured local residents it was all safe.

“Though the lot will be closed off to the public, if people — particularly children — get some of the lead contaminated dirt in their mouths, the lead will just pass through their bodies and not be absorbed,” the newsletter said. “Without this iron-phosphorus mix, lead poisoning would occur.”

Soil chemist Murray McBride, director of the Cornell Waste Management Institute, said he doesn’t doubt that sludge can bind lead in soil.

But when eaten, “it’s not at all clear that the sludge binding the lead will be preserved in the acidity of the stomach,” he said. “Actually thinking about a child ingesting this, there’s a very good chance that it’s not safe.”

McBride and others also questioned the choice of neighborhoods for the studies and why residents were not told about other, possibly harmful ingredients in sludge.

“If you’re not telling them what kinds of chemicals could be in there, how could they even make an informed decision. If you’re telling them it’s absolutely safe, then it’s not ethical,” McBride said. “In many relatively wealthy people’s neighborhoods, I would think that people would research this a little and see a problem and raise a red flag.”

Shades of Tuskegee, all over again.

No surprise. This administration seems to be in the disaster business: ignoring them, creating them, and exploiting them.


  1. Every time I think I can’t be more astonished at the depravity of the Bush administration I read something like this that proves me wrong. What monsters they are.

  2. That certainly does have shades of Tuskegee…I mean damn…how about doing your testing on, oh I don’t know, a test plot of land, set aside specifically for the purpose? Why is it in people’s yards??

    Of course, if the price of food keeps going up, we’ll be eating Soylent Green…

  3. An excellent provocative and mostly dead on observation. Agree on most, but the emphasis on poor black kids is disingenuous. White middle class neighborhoods didnt have lead in their balding brown yards. They had to go where the lead was – in this case, the oldest and poorest neighborhoods in the city. That the worst neighborhoods are predominately black neighborhoods should be the real concern.