'Some call it poison others hail it as environmentally friendly. Who’s telling us the truth about Fertile Residual Material (FRM) aka sludge and who’s lying? The foods that we eat are mostly produced on land fertilized by digester sludge containing dangerous substances. The consequences have been disastrous so far and most feel that governments need to ban its usage instead of regulating it. The continued use of sewage sludge in agriculture and regulating its use to prevent harmful effects on soil, vegetation, animals and man - is an ongoing debate. '
'“It’s a big mistake,” says Maureen Reilly, a veteran biosolid researcher, at a screening of the film Sludge Diet.
“If we separated industrial waste and just dealt with our own fecal waste---it would essentially be a big composting toilet---that would be a huge improvement. As it is, the process destroys groundwater and encourages industry to pollute.”
It also kills cows and people. Sludge Diet, by filmmaker Mario Desmairas, details the tragic impact of the four-million tonnes of the stuff spread on American farms every year and tells the harrowing stories of cancer-related deaths in families living near sludge-covered farms.
Just last month, a federal judge ordered the US Agriculture Department to compensate Georgia farmer Andy McElmurray, whose land was poisoned by sludge, killing hundreds of cows. The same poisons that killed the cows showed up in milk marketed by a neighbouring farmer. According to the Associated Press, “the level of thallium---an element once used as rat poison---found in the milk was 120 times the concentration allowed in drinking water by the Environmental Protection Agency.”
Thallium is one of thousands of chemicals that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency is not testing Halifax Harbour sludge for. The chemical was, however, found in samples taken from a lagoon on Inglewood Farms in Truro. Inglewood gained notoriety in 2004 after using Halifax-produced sludge on-site, poisoning neighbours in the process.
“I had burning skin, I couldn’t sleep, I had breathing problems,” says Barb Rockwell, one of those neighbours. Others came down with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, an agonizing combination of chronic bronchitis and emphysema.
After the Inglewood fiasco, the Nova Scotia Farm Practices Board condemned the application of biosolids as an abnormal farm practice. The local MP, Bill Casey, was practically jubilant in his call for national standards on the use of biosolids.
“This should snap everybody to attention,” he said at the time, pointing out that biosolids are already banned in Newfoundland and Labrador. They are also banned or strictly limited in several European countries.
Here in Nova Scotia, we still await the latest test results from the CFIA and the EPA. The problem with those tests, according to Rob Hale of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, is that they analyze only one percent of the chemicals in sludge.
“You can’t find what you don’t test for,” says Fred Blois, a leading Nova Scotian activist against the use of sludge on farms. “And since you have a cocktail of chemicals we can’t predict how they change their nature in combination.”
Blois has been working with Tamara Lorincz at the Nova Scotia Environment Network to talk with dairy farmers, expected to be the main buyers of biosolids. The Nova Scotia Federation of Agriculture has already recommended that farmers refuse to buy the N-Viro product. Lorincz says farmers are still debating the issue.
Brian Cameron, general manager of the Dairy Farmers of Nova Scotia, explains why: “Biosolids would provide a cost saving. Commercial fertilizer prices shot up last year and that’s a huge cost factor.” At the same time, Cameron acknowledges the risk of “negative public perception” after what happened with Inglewood Farms.
What’s at stake is far more than public perception. As Andy McElmurray in Georgia found out, the livelihood of farmers is at stake. As Barbara Rockwell found out, human health is at stake. '