Young and Hungry

A Tale of Two White House Vegetable Gardens: Toxic or Not?

White House veggie garden

Shortly before the holiday weekend, a small shitstorm started brewing over the the elevated levels of lead discovered earlier this year on the White House lawn, site of the vegetable garden heard 'round the world. In a column for Huffington Post, Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety, wrote that National Park Service tests found "highly elevated levels of lead — 93 parts per million."

"It's enough lead for anyone planning to have children pick vegetables in that garden or eat produce from it to reconsider their plans: lead is highly toxic to children's developing organs and brain functions — however, it's below the 400 ppm the EPA suggests is a threat to human health," Kimbrell added.

As leader of the Center for Food Safety, a non-profit dedicated to fighting Big Ag and its anti-environmental and sustainable ways, Kimbrell figured he had cornered the devil living in the White House dirt: a commercial fertilizer called ComPRO, made from a wastewater plant's sewage sludge, which the Clinton Administration apparently had agreed to spread on the lawn during its temporary stay at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. It was a theory that Kimbrell borrowed from Mother Jones, which first reported on the possible ComPRO connection.

Kimbrell took this rare gift horse — a highly visible White House vegetable garden and a major commercial fertilizer with potentially harmful effects — and rode that sumbitch as far as he could go. He rode her hard:

So what is sludge, really? A stinking, sticky, dark-grey to black paste, it's everything homeowners, hospitals and industries put down their toilets and drains. Every material-turned-waste that our society produces (including prescription drugs and the sweepings of slaughterhouses), and that wastewater treatment plants are capable of removing from sewage, becomes sludge. The end product is a concentrated mass of heavy metals and carcinogenic, teratogenic, and hormone-disrupting chemicals, replete with antibiotic-resistant bacteria. There are some 80,000 to 90,000 industrial chemicals, including a host of dioxin-like deadly substances, which are allowed to be present in sludge under current EPA rules. What's worse, there's no way of knowing which toxic chemicals and heavy metals are entering the wastewater stream at any given time or in what concentrations. Sludge is always an unknown quantity, and therefore, assessing whether sludge is safe to use for growing food, is — in practice — impossible.

Farmers who care about what they grow know this, and — despite the best efforts of government and the sludge industry — growing food in sewage sludge is prohibited under the federal organic regulations. Still, sludge is still widely used as a cheap alternative to fertilizer, and unless you're buying organic produce, it's impossible to know if the food you eat was grown in it.

Scary stuff indeed. Kimbrell continues hitting the spurs:

So when people living or working in the vicinity of sludged fields and when diary cows and other farm animals grazing on sludged land have gotten sick from heavy metal, chemical or pathogen based maladies, the EPA has either ignored, denied or, in some cases, even fraudulently covered it up. However it's getting harder for the agency to ignore the toll of sludged land as we see increasing reports in adjacent communities of elevated levels of cancer or deaths believed to be related to sludge exposure. In some areas where sludge has been heavily used, whole families are evincing the same symptoms: sores in their nasal passages, chronic staph infections, crippling headaches and sinus troubles. Yet — despite the mounting evidence — EPA wants to continue to promote sludge as a benign alternative to fertilizer.

And then Kimbrell rides his gift horse all the way to the front steps of the White House, where his steed kicks the Obamas square in the mouth:

The Obamas may be the newest sludge victims. Certainly Michelle Obama's hopes of having a truly organic garden and healthy vegetables for her own children and other children who visit the White House have been dashed. The impact on their lives is symbolic; it's not just the Obamas under threat, it's all of us. Municipalities around the country have jumped on the bandwagon to sell their "biosolids" to sludge companies, a convenient solution to profitably rid themselves of hazardous waste. Over the last several years, we have all become unwilling guinea pigs, testing the safety of foods raised on sewage-sludged land. We're also unknowing guinea pigs, since none of this produce is labeled to show how it was grown.

I have to admit, it's a pretty effective dismantling of sewage sludge as fertilizer. But then journalist Eddie Gehman Kohan, a food politics dynamo over at Obama Foodorama, wrote a rebuttal piece the following day for Huffington Post. It pointed out two majors flaws to Kimbrell's argument: that the lead levels are far below the 400 parts per million considered dangerous to childhood health and that the sewage sludge likely didn't cause the elevated levels of lead.

This, in short, is why real dogged reporting is so much more important than agenda-driven editorializing — even when the agenda is worth fighting for. Once you start exploiting public events and public personas — without checking all the facts first — you lose credibility.

Image by dbking via Flickr Creative Commons Attribution License

  • Maureen Reilly

    This writer misses the point.
    The sludge composts that were spread on the White House lawn to make it greener also added toxic metal contamination - along with whatever other contaminant payload was in the sludge compost. The Obama's in a fabulous gesture to support gardening and organic agriculture now have to wrestle with the toxins left behind in the soil that is now their garden.

    Is the garden toxic? I don't know. The only soil test we have been told about is 93ppm lead. That is certainly elevated. There is no 'safe' level of lead. All the lead people ingest increases the likelihood of neurotoxic impacts. And kids in DC already have lead in the drinking water supply - so lead clinging to leafy greens or lead tracked into the home on running shoes and subsequently ingested in 'hand-to-mouth' will add to the body burden.

    I phoned up the the 'experts' quoted by Eddie in her attempt to refute the sludge story. But the expert I talked to said that the kids needed to be careful to wash their hands from the soil - careful to wash the vegetables - and was not accurately quoted in her Obama Foodorama Blog.
    So much for Eddie's scholarship or writing integrity.

    Dr. Stanford Tackett, professor emeritus of the Indiana University of Pennsylvania Chemistry Department, warns that "one application of sewage sludge to the land adds more lead per acre than 50 years of driving with leaded gasoline."

    The point is that putting sludge composts or pellets - with their elevated levels of toxins - puts contamination in our precious soils. And if we allow our soils - whether they are home gardens, lawns, public parks, or farmlands - to be spiked with these municipal sludge 'products' then we will have to do much toxin testing of our gardens, much toxin testing of our food, much toxin testing of our children and put at risk the health of generations to come.

    The sludge industry was keen to 'own the green' on the White House. Now they need to man up and own the toxic legacy as well.

    Dear Michelle Obama - please help to ban the use of sewage sludge fertilizers on your lawn, on all public parks, and on farmlands.

    Go organic!

    Maureen Reilly
    Sludge Watch

  • C. Lopez

    This is an excellent discovery-not a word of it in the Post, or Traditional media (too busy riding Michael Jackson's coat tails to his grave).

    This would be a perfect cause for Michelle to take up. WCP should start a petition, I'd gladly sign

  • sam “monsieur baguette”

    Tim, you missed the rebuttal of the rebuttal -- this sumbitch ain't over until it's over.

  • Concerned Citizen

    Excellent article. This is what the people living next to the farms spreading sludge has been trying to tell people about the harm it is doing to our prime farm land. With out our prime farm land how do we feed the people? I hope the Obama administration will wake up now that it has effected them and help the communities living around farms to ban this practice. The EPA and the DEP provides no protection from this harmful practice

  • anonymous

    Ms. Kohan said in her rebuttal that lead falls from the sky onto the ground from "things like auto emissions." You then state, in your article, that she thus proved that the lead in the White House soil did not come from the sludge dumped on the White House grounds during the last 20 years.
    As a 39 year veteran of EPA, let me remind you that lead has not been in auto fuel and auto emissions since way before Ms. Kohan was born.
    The USDA requires food labeled as "organic" to NOT be grown on land that was sludged. Also, conventional food companies, like Heinz and DelMonte, do not allow food grown on sludged land to be in their products.

  • Liz

    I love how this article lays out the entire anti-sludge argument and then at the very end says throws in a but-other-people-have-rebutted-the-argument link. Is this to make the writing seem balanced? It's the City Paper for goodness sake! No one expects balance from the everyone's favorite snarky frat boy paper and honestly anyone who argues that something made of sewage sludge is a good thing to put on our food is completely off their rocker.

  • anonymouS

    Why is there all this guesswork? Collect some proper data.

    It's very easy to determine how much increase, if any, biosolids had on the garden. Test the lawn adjacent to the garden that didn't receive biosolids. Sufficient sampling would make it possible to get fairly conclusive results.

    What's the background soil lead level in the various suburbs of DC? As with most cities, it's likely elevated.

    Interestingly enough, biosolids has been shown to reduce the mobility of lead in soil, making it less of a threat to children in areas with high background lead.

    Sometimes I get a little irked when these fluff pieces come out, espousing a very dim and poorly informed view of biosolids without understanding the relevant facts.

  • Jim Bynum

    According to the 1967 Surgeon General Report on solid waste, the National Park Service has been spreading sludge all over DC. Cadmium is even more dangerous than lead and they are both taken up by leafy vegetables. Cadmium at at 20 to 1 in the soil. Then you have the pathogens EPA allows in compost such as E. coli and Salmonella. Oh, EPA refers to them as fecal coliform and claims they don't cause disease. E. coli is the primary fecal coliform -- gram negative bacteria that ferment lactose to produce gas and/acid when incubated at 112.1 degrees F. The test suppresses all other bacteria that grow at the optium temperature of 97-98 degree F.
    Since I had a farm destroyed by bacteria running off a sludge site I can assure you sewage sludge biosolids are not safe.