Gutter Grub: Why Sewage Treatment Is A Real Produce Problem


Sewage sludge often used as fertilizer on farms can leave remnants of prescription drugs and household chemicals deep in what should be healthy soil, admits a new study conducted by federal scientists.

The research suggests that nationwide biosolid use could taint groundwater near farms with a plethora of harmful chemicals, such as anti-depressants like Prozac and hormone-wrecking compounds in antibacterial soaps.

“These compounds are not sitting in top layer, we see vertical movement down through the soil, which means there’s the potential to get into the environment—groundwater or surface water,” says Dana Kolpin, a research hydrologist for the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).

Researchers from USGS examined a wheat field in Colorado that used treated sludge from a Denver sewage treatment plant, and found that chemicals from antibacterial soaps, cleaners, cosmetics, fragrances, and even certain prescription drugs showed up in the soil– and even spread down deep.

The researchers searched for 57 “emerging” contaminants that are more and more frequently showing up all around us. Ten of them were seen in the soil at depths between seven and 50 inches after a full 18 months had passed following administration of the treated sludge– despite there being none in the soil beforehand.

“These are compounds that often come from us and that get sent to wastewater treatment plants that weren’t designed to remove them,” says Tracy Yager, a USGS hydrologist and lead author of the study.

Almost half of treated sewage sludge sourced from U.S. wastewater plants is administered to farm fields because the nutrients and organic matter improves plant growth. The municipal sewage has endured mandatory primary treatment among other treatment processes that rid it of pathogens– but fail to remove chemicals.

Certain separate studies have realized hormones, detergents, fragrances, drugs, disinfectants, and plasticizers are frequently found in treated sludge-turned-fertilizer. However, this is the first study to take a comprehensive look at how they can migrate through soil.

“These are compounds that often come from us and that get sent to wastewater treatment plants that weren’t designed to remove them,” Yager concludes.


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