Toxic Sludge Taints the White House

When First Lady Michelle Obama decided to plant a vegetable garden at the White House, she faced a problem that many new homeowners in America run into. Previous residents of her house had applied sewage sludge to her lawn, but left no warnings to alert the her about the potential toxicity of her soil as a result of the sludge application. When the Obamas tested the soil in preparation for planting their garden, they found some lead in the soil. At 93 parts per million (ppm), the lead showed that the soil was probably contaminated by something, even though at 93 ppm the lead itself was not necessarily a danger. Still, the Obamas took precautions to further lower the lead level to 14ppm, and make the lead unavailable to plants by adding soil amendments that diluted the lead and changed the pH of the soil.

Sludge Politicized

Unfortunately for the Obamas, and for the entire nation, once the story hit the news, it became politicized. While the issue was initially raised as a comment on the safety of using sewage sludge as fertilizer – an issue that has no political party – the right soon grabbed a hold of the story as a way to make fun of the Obamas. Some on the left fiercely defended the Obamas in return. But the Obamas are not the villains in this story; they are the victims. They are among many other Americans whose yards and gardens are contaminated with sewage sludge without their knowledge and who, as a result, are exposed to toxic contaminants in the soil. And lead is just a fraction of the overall problem.

When it was conceived, the White House garden was intended as a symbol of support for home gardening and fresh, organic food. In fact, famed chef and visionary Alice Waters lobbied for the White House garden for more than a decade. When it finally became a reality last year, she said, "Fresh, wholesome food is the right of every American. This garden symbolizes the Obamas' commitment to that belief." But in planting her garden, Michelle Obama not only set the example she intended for home gardening, she also illustrated why using sewage sludge as fertilizer is so harmful.

How the White House Got Sludged

To the best of anyone's knowledge, the White House garden was first sludged in the Reagan years. During the 1980's, the nation was experiencing the aftermath of the Clean Water Act, which required wastewater treatment plants to remove toxins from wastewater before releasing the water into the environment as effluent. As a result, wastewater treatment plants across the country were left with sewage sludge, a grey jelly comprised of everything they removed from the water. Some cities -- most notably New York City -- dealt with sludge by dumping it in the ocean, a practice that environmental groups were working to end. As this played out in court in the 1980's, New York searched for a new way to dispose of sludge. Ocean dumping was finally banned by the Ocean Dumping Reform Act of 1988, a law that fully took effect in 1991.

kids in gardenThere is no really "good way" to dispose of sludge. Recent EPA data shows that the majority of sludge samples tested contained a list from A to Z of toxins including metals, pharmaceuticals, flame retardants, semivolatile organics, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and steroids. Sludge may also include other substances (or organisms) that the EPA did not test for, including parasites, bacteria, viruses, dioxins, and pesticides. Yet today, wastewater treatment plants and even the EPA talk about "beneficial uses" for sludge: converting it to energy (while releasing pollutants into the air), using it as alternate daily cover in landfills, or spreading it on farmland, gardens and lawns as fertilizer.

Sludge PR

The language around sludge (and even the name of sludge itself) changed as wastewater treatment plants across the country looked for ways to dispose of sludge when ocean dumping was no longer an option. New York City shopped their sludge around, looking for a community that would welcome it as fertilizer. Understandably, nobody wanted it. For obvious reasons, sludge is a public relations nightmare, even before people understand the volume and variety of toxins it contains. It was in this environment, as the issue played out during the Reagan and Bush years, that the National Park Service began applying sludge at the White House.

Sludging the White House was but one part of the campaign to clean up sludge's public image. In the waning days of the first Bush administration, the sewage industry trade, lobby, and public relations group, the Water Environment Federation (WEF), held a contest among its members to rename sludge. The EPA liked the new name they selected – "biosolids" – so much, they gave WEF a $300,000 grant to promote the "beneficial use" of sludge. The EPA also modified its rules governing the application of sludge on America's farmland, which previously classified sludge as hazardous waste. With its nifty new name, "biosolids" now qualified as fertilizer – so long as it met some minimal requirements. Specifically, the EPA regulates the amounts of only nine heavy metals and fecal coliform bacteria that are permitted in sludge that is applied to land as fertilizer. And, while keeping high levels of lead, arsenic, and other heavy metals out of sludge is a nice gesture, compare that to the long list of chemicals and organisms that sludge may actually still contain.

What's In That Stuff, Anyway?

Sewage sludge is not only a mix of everything that goes down household drains, it also contains industrial and hospital waste. The root of the problem is our sewer system, which uses water as a means to transport waste and does not separate what goes down toilets or kitchen sinks from what goes down the drain at oil refineries, factories, or other industrial sites. Instead of forcing industry to bear the cost of disposing of its waste products responsibly, we let them send it to our wastewater treatment plants, mixed in with water, and taxpayers bear the cost of separating that waste out from the water and then dealing with it as sludge. Therefore, the contents of sludge are determined by the materials disposed of by nearby industrial sites (although some chemicals are more or less universal in all sludge, based on the EPA's tests).

It's Not Sludge, It's "Biosolids"!

Despite this, the EPA continued promoting the "beneficial use" of biosolids and the National Park Service continued applying it at the White House until as late as 2004. In the rest of the country, home gardeners could buy sludge for their own lawns or gardens in commercially marketed fertilizers like Milorganite (sludge from Milwaukee, marketed using the slogan "For Better Results. Naturally."), Hou-Actinite (sludge from Houston, marketed as "a naturally nutrient rich slow release organic fertilizer"), Allgro (which promises to help you "fertilize organically – while promoting environmental sustainability among American businesses"), and Vital Cycle (marketed as "a concentrated natural organic fertilizer"). Companies marketing sludge as fertilizer frame their products as natural, sustainable, and even organic, terms that are misleading and and dangerous. In fact, the USDA's organic standards specifically forbids applying sewage sludge to land that is farmed organically, and making any claim that sludge is organic is just plain wrong.

What's In Your Soil?

White House kitchen gardenIf, like Michelle Obama, a gardener moves to a new house that was previously owned by someone else, or builds a new house on land that was previously farmland, the gardener will have no way of knowing what contaminants are in the soil if the previous owner has applied sludge. Garden stores sell soil test kits, but those only test for pH and a few key nutrients (nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium). University labs often offer more extensive soil testing for a low price ($10-$30 or so), and those can include tests for lead, cadmium, nickel, chromium, and a few other heavy metals. However, it is impossible for the average gardener to find an inexpensive soil test kit that could even begin to identify the long list of contaminants that may be in soil "fertilized" with sludge. Also, commonly-available tests may not be sensitive enough to detect small amounts of contaminants that may only be present in parts per million or parts per billion. (Depending on the substance, a tiny concentration may be enough to harm one's health.)

Sludge Isn't Harmless

Despite the EPA's claims of safety, sludge has not been used as fertilizer for decades without incident. People and animals have become ill or died, and farms have gone out of business due to land application of sludge. Harry Dobin, who ran a coffee truck one thousand feet from a sludge composting site, was one such casualty. He began experiencing health problems in 1991, when he was 25 years old. After months of worsening symptoms and a number of wrong diagnoses, doctors discovered Aspergillus fumigatus, a fungus common in composting sludge, in his lungs. By the time he was diagnosed, the disease was too advanced to treat. Dobin died nine months after he was diagnosed, on September 23, 1992.

In a more recent example, Andy McElmurray spread sludge on his Georgia dairy farm for more than a decade. The sludge fertilized crops fed to his cattle. All went well until he switched the crop he was growing and added lime to raise the pH of his soil in order to do so. The higher pH caused a toxic metal – molybdenum – to become bioavailable to the plants. The cows were poisoned by molybdenum, and many died. Ultimately, McElmurray went out of business. Even consumers are at risk, so long as farms use sludge as fertilizer. In McElmurray's case, a nearby NutraSweet factory had been sending thallium (used in rat poison) down its drains and it wound up in the sludge he applied to his land. When milk from a local grocery store was tested, it contained thallium at 11 times the legal limit for thallium in drinking water.

Michelle's Opportunity

It is truly a shame that Michelle Obama's vegetable garden is marred by past use of sewage sludge on the White House grounds. The historic garden has inspired many, both at home and abroad, and the First Lady is credited as one reason for a national surge in home gardening. It is not her fault that previous administrations were dishonest about the safety of sewage sludge as fertilizer, but now that she has uncovered the problem, she has the power and high-profile to do something about it to help other Americans. We hope she does.


Ms. Richardson presents one perspective on biosolids use, and it is a minority view. Her coverage of the White House Garden issue last year is incomplete and misleading; go to and scroll down the page for more complete information. The preponderance of thousands of scientific research papers and decades of experience find biosolids use on soils in accordance with regulations to be protective of public health and the environment. That is the finding of the National Academy of Sciences. That is the policy of U. S. EPA, USDA, and FDA - and has been for decades under all administrations. Every state environmental agency accepts biosolids recycling to soil. Biosolids recycling is not a new or unusual practice. It is a critical part of managing sewage sludge, which is a necessary by-product of keeping surface and groundwater clean. While treated sewage sludge - biosolids - cannot be used in certified organic production in accordance with USDA standards, its use in conventional agriculture, in silviculture, and for land reclamation is as safe as other conventional agricultural practices - and it is far more regulated than the uses of animal manure (which present similar risks that must be managed), of which 25 times as much is applied to land in the U. S. Learn more about biosolids recycling - an important environmental program – at

That's funny. I realize that thousands of Americans make their living disposing of waste material everyday, and millions of Americans benefit from the fine work they do, but to become a lobbyist for the sewage industry has to be a ding on the ol' resume. No joke about the pay.

I'm sure biosolids are a lot less harmless than she makes themn out to be, but I'd still take the word of the EPA and FDA with a grain of salt.

One lobbyist against another, fact is, human, hospital and industrial waste all mixed together and put on the garden. Tha's fine for roses and grass but not for vegetables. The white house is a reflection of the nation, seems to me a nation of mushrooms kept in the dark and fed on poo funded by the big corporations all packaged up in something called "democracy".

In articles last year it was reported that the WH gardener had told MO about the sludge problem...and was ignored. There was an interview with him in one of the LSM...which has since disappeared...and now the only interview left was a denial that he had ever told MO about the problem. Lots of things seem to be disappearing lately. Is this the "change we can count on"? I think that gardener did announce his retirement in the last interview. Who knows? It gets "curiouser and curiouser".

Great, eye-opening article on sludge and the toxic events that take place under the radar of the average American. If sludge is not okay for organic produce, why is it okay for regular produce? It all has to do with what the industry is able to get away with while no one is paying attention. A strong argument for buying organic, and investigating your own soil. Michelle Obama’s toxic veggie nightmare: White House organic garden polluted with sludge Alex Salkever Jul 30th 2009 When First Lady Michelle Obama planted an organic vegetable garden on the White House lawn in March 2009, she hoped to both set an example of healthy eating and to grow tasty edibles for her daughters and husband. But Michelle’s organic dream has been dashed by a nasty toxic legacy lurking in the soils of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. It turns out that a previous Presidential gardening team had used sewage sludge for fertilizer. This is a fairly common practice with one huge problem. Sewage sludge tends to be laced with anything that people pour down the drain and often contains heavy metals. Not surprisingly, the National Park Service tested the dirt beneath Michelle’s garden and found the plot has highly elevated levels of lead averaging 93 parts per million. That’s below the 400 ppm that the Environmental Protection Agency says is a threat to human health. But I’d wager that Sasha, Malia and Barack won’t be getting arugula or tomatoes from this garden any time soon. The likely source of the toxic sludge that has ruined Michelle’s garden? The Clinton White House apparently used a sludge-based product to fertilize the lawn during the 1990s! Aside from casting a shadow on the first White House vegetable garden since Eleanor Roosevelt resided there, the sludge ensures that Michelle’s garden will never attain organic status. Organic certification processes strictly prohibit the use of sludge as a fertilizer substitute. The White House has sought to downplay the issue, and a number of experts have pointed out that 93 ppm of sludge in soil is somewhat normal for older urban locales. However, the EPA recommends not growing food in soil that has 100 ppm. Several major food producers, including H.J. Heinz and Del Monte, won’t accept produce grown in sludge. That’s despite decades of U.S. government efforts to encourage farmers to use solid sewage wastes in lieu of traditional fertilizer products. What a surprise it is to see that it’s the Clintons who are to blame? Did you ever think you would hear ‘the Clintons’ and ‘sludge’ mentioned in the same sentence?