Shit show

What has the SFPUC has been dumping in city gardens?

The SFPUC has been giving away compost made of human waste for years, but recently stopped due to health concerns

By Brady Welch

GREEN CITY Food safety groups complain that the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission has until recently been dumping its crap in the backyards and gardens of any residents who unwittingly asked for it.

The city calls this crap "biosolids compost," and for Mayor Gavin Newsom and the SFPUC, it seemed like a green dream come true. But it turns out that putting processed human excrement into people's vegetable gardens might not be the elegant — if somewhat gross — reuse strategy it once seemed to be.

The vexing sewage sludge left over after treatment and separation of the city's wastewater was being treated, combined with woodchips and paper waste, and labeled compost so it could, according to the SFPUC's Web site, "provide essential plant nutrients, improve soil structure, enhance moisture retention, and reduce soil erosion." Not bad for the ultimate human waste product.

The problem, say groups including the Center for Food Safety and Organic Consumers Association, is that the SFPUC's compost contains a host of other toxins and hazardous materials not necessarily originating with what the city's granola-munching denizens flush down the toilet. In fact, a January 2009 Environmental Protection Agency study of sewage sludge from 74 treatment plants found, in nearly every sample, "28 metals, four polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, two semi-volatiles, 11 flame retardants, 72 pharmaceuticals, and 25 steroids and hormones." Yikes.

"You name it, it's in there," John Mayer, said spokesperson for the Organic Consumers Association. The compost "is hazardous waste, and it's absurd to claim that it's safe to consume. No matter what the sludge processing industry claims, it is by definition dangerous." The EPA report would certainly seem to support Mayer's claim, except that it expressly stops short of doing just that, stating that the results "do not imply that the concentrations for any [substance] are of particular concern to EPA."

Then again, it was the EPA that started promoting the use of biosolid compost in the first place, back in 1978. The only safety thresholds the agency sets for biosolids compost concern nine heavy metals and the elimination of pathogens — none of the flame retardants, steroids, semi-volatiles, and carcinogens found in their study — a standard that has remained largely unchanged for a decade.

But that's only part of the story, because as it turns out, San Francisco's sewage sludge isn't that contaminated compared to the shit generated in other regions. "We found in our tests that it's really low for all the emerging pollutants," SFPUC spokesperson Tyron Jue told us, citing data listed on its Web site indicating that testing goes beyond what the EPA requires, and even beyond more stringent European Union standards. Jue even said that the SFPUC's biosolids compost has "metal limits lower than in a daily vitamin, and lower or comparable to store-bought compost."

Yet Paige Tomaselli of the Center for Food Safety understands the data differently. "San Francisco may test above and beyond the national standards. They may think their testing is green. But the truth of the matter is that that the compost they're giving away is not generated here in San Francisco."

Indeed, the sewage sludge the SFPUC tested is not the same stuff it was handing out for three years as "organic biosolids compost." After the organic food industry complained, the utility recently dropped the "organic" designation, offering the admittedly sheepish defense that the label was meant to imply "carbon-rich," a definition that would make, among nearly everything else, the Guardian you hold in your hands organic.