What are bio-solids, and are they safe for school vegetable gardens?

With the increased interest in growing your own, some school districts are implementing programs to teach children

about how to grow their food. The Los Angeles school district is one such place, which because of it's location utilizes “star power” to promote their program. The EMA or Environmental Media Association is the organization who’s mission is to, “mobilize the entertainment industry in a global effort to educate people about environmental issues and inspire them into action”.  They have also utilized the generosity of a local soil amendment company, Kellogg Garden Products.

Recently a controversy surrounding the program, and the type of amendments they are using in those gardens arose. According to a SFGate article titled Sewage Sludge, Celebrities, and School Gardens, “It appears that Kellogg is using sewage sludge, purchased from the city of Los Angeles, in 70% of its fertilizers, while all the while branding them as ‘natural & organic.’ The promotional language on their website says: ‘The cornerstone to our success, stability, and integrity is our commitment to providing organic gardeners with products you can trust.’ Sewage sludge is not just treated human waste (which is gross enough, but apparently safe); it also contains hazardous contaminants drawn from sewer water by sewage treatments plants, including industrial solvents and chemicals, heavy metals, medical wastes, flame retardants and PCBs.”

I wrote to Kellogg’s, and received an e-mail from Kathy Kellogg Johnson, Chief Sustainability Officer. Here is her response to the above mentioned SF Gate Article.  “Thank you very much for contacting us and giving us the opportunity to respond to the blog post on SFGate.com. Essentially it is a reprint of an article that has been circulating the internet for the past few months.  The author is a self proclaimed activist who cites his own misquoted sources.  He has never contacted us to initiate a dialog.  His tactics include slamming Michele Obama's White House garden, Alice Waters foundation for teaching children to garden, and many more.  There several factual errors in the article that I would like to point out:

1.      “It appears that Kellogg is using sewage sludge, purchased from the city of Los Angeles, in 70% of its fertilizers.”

This is FALSE. All of our fertilizers are OMRI listed, and OMRI does not allow products to be OMRI listed if they contain sewage sludge. Moreover, four products we produce (Amend, Topper, GroMulch, and Nitrohumus) contain what the EPA calls “Class ‘A’ Exceptional Quality Biosolid Compost.” To acheive Class A Exceptional Quality status, biosolids go through heavily regulated processes to remove contaminants and to kill pathogens. The resulting biosolids form a rich soil amendment that looks and smells like any other composted material. While we think that biosolids are a great soil amendment, we realize that some people find the concept unappealing. We offer our customers a choice by listing which products contain biosolids on our website, and offering several OMRI listed soil amendments as an alternative for those customers who would prefer not to use biosolids in their gardens.

I also want to note that biosolids have a benefit beyond any one individual garden. Composting them is a huge benefit to the environment, as the alternative is to dump sewage into the ocean, fill up our landfills with it, or to burn it. None of those options are as environmentally friendly as composting sewage and turning it into a soil amendment.

And just to point out how sloppy or deliberately misleading this article is with the facts, we get all of our biosolids from Inland Empire Utility Agency, not Los Angeles, which is clearly stated on our website. The 70% is a gross, inexcusable, exaggeration, and gives further evidence of the activist's ill intent and zero effort to fact check.  In fact, just 4 of 276 products that Kellogg markets contain biosolids. No matter how I tweak the math, I can’t get to 70%.

2.      “Sewage sludge is not just treated human waste (which is gross enough, but apparently safe); it also contains hazardous contaminants.”

This is FALSE. As I mentioned above, the EPA heavily regulates the use of biosolids and all of Kellogg’s products that contain biosolids are 90% BELOW the allowable maximum for any contaminant. The original perpetrator of this article is taking advantage of the public’s lack of knowledge about soil science to scare them with data that sounds worrisome but actually is actually completely benign. Yes, testing equipment is now so good that we can detect minute amounts of all sorts of things. But just as a certain amount of arsenic is naturally occurring in some soils and is nothing to worry about, the amount of heavy metals in our products is extremely small and we make every effort to see that it matches the naturally occurring levels found in native soils.   The peer reviewed scientific data shows that there is nothing to be concerned about. To make this point even plainer, there are more heavy metals in your toothpaste than there are in our products.

3.      “sewage sludge is toxic and should not be branded as organic fertilizer, nor should it be used to grow food with, and very obviously, school children should not be digging around in it to grow zucchini and cilantro.”

This is FALSE. The statement that sewage sludge is toxic is factually incorrect.   The activist is entitled to his own opinion, but not entitled to his own facts.  Toxic is a defined term and the micro constituents sometimes found in biosolids are NEVER approaching toxic (harmful) levels.  All of the fertilizers donated to the EMA gardens were certified as organic and do not contain biosolids. The accusation that Kellogg lies about its fertilizer content and covers it up is an outright lie.

The "evidence" that Kellogg has donated products containing biosolids to EMA schools appears to be rooted in two publicity photos that show Amend in the background of the photo.    This was an inadvertent mistake on our part. We were asked to bring bags of soil to the photo shoot to be used as a prop.  I grabbed Amend and Gromulch, what was easily accessible, and these 2 photos are now what the activist points to in order to embarrass, discredit and dismember a very excellent garden program in Los Angeles.

As we increase our line of OMRI listed products, we have decided to only donate OMRI certified products to the schools we support through Environmental Media Association. But to reiterate the original points, there is nothing toxic in our products.  Kellogg complies with all state and federal regulations, and to take it a step further, we offer a large selection of OMRI listed products for the gardening public.  We are proud of our legacy of recycling organic materials from local sources and enriching soils and gardens that are virtually starving for organic matter.  We believe that there is excellence in our processes and in the return of biosolids to soils to enrich and nourish plant growth.

I hope my response to the blog post answers your questions, but if I can clarify anything or provide more information, I would be happy to do so. And again, I really appreciate that you gave us the opportunity to respond and share our side of the story.  i would love to talk further, and share the source documents, and get the word out there, that we need to all be cognizant of returning organic matter to our soils!"

I was contacted by a concerned parent who had bought some soil amendments from Trader Joe's. On the bag it mentioned "no bio-solids" in the ingredients list. Wondering what bio-solids we're, and why they made a point of saying none we're contained in the bag, she did some research. She sent me the link to an article, that I followed to the SFGate.com article. As Kathy Kellogg says, no one asked for their side to the story so  I am happy to give Kellogg's a chance to respond to the rumors.  This issue is new to me and I would like to learn more. We would love to hear from others who might be more knowledgeable on the subject.