What are biosolids and are they safe?

Quasar tank
The Quasar facility in Wooster, where processed effluent is produced.

WOOSTER, Ohio — The lagoon being planned by Quasar Energy Group and a local farmer has drawn a lot of attention. While there are many lagoons across Wayne County and in the agricultural community in general, this one is different because it will contain processed municipal, human and animal waste. The biggest concern appears to be over biosolids, or processed sewage sludge.

According to Quasar, the lagoon will contain less than 20 percent biosolids, which are first processed at wastewater treatment plants, and secondly, inside the company’s anaerobic digester in Wooster.

The use of biosolids by agriculture is regulated by the U.S. EPA and the Ohio EPA. Here are some answers to the most common questions regarding biosolids.

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What are biosolids?

Biosolids are nutrient-rich organic material resulting from the treatment of sewage sludge. When treated and processed, biosolids can be recycled and applied as fertilizer to improve and maintain productive soils and stimulate plant growth.

Why do we have biosolids?

We have biosolids as a result of the wastewater treatment process. Water treatment technology has made our water safer for recreation and fish harvesting. Just 30 years ago, thousands of American cities dumped their raw sewage directly into the nation’s rivers, lakes, and bays. Through regulation of this dumping, local governments are now required to treat wastewater and to make the decision whether to recycle biosolids as fertilizer, incinerate them, or bury them in a landfill.

Where do they come from?

Once the wastewater reaches the treatment plant, the sewage goes through physical, chemical and biological processes which clean the wastewater and remove water from the solids. If necessary, the solids are then treated with lime to raise the pH level to eliminate objectionable odors. The wastewater treatment process sanitizes wastewater solids to control pathogens (disease-causing organisms, such as certain bacteria, viruses and parasites) and other organisms capable of transporting disease.

Where are biosolids used?

Farmers and gardeners have been recycling biosolids for ages. Biosolids recycling is the process of beneficially using treated the treated residuals from wastewater treatment to promote the growth of agricultural crops, fertilize gardens and parks and reclaim mining sites. Land application of biosolids takes place in all 50 states.

The application of biosolids reduces the need for chemical fertilizers. About 50 percent of all biosolids are being recycled to land. These biosolids are used on less than one percent of the nation’s agricultural land.

Do biosolids smell?

Biosolids may have their own distinctive odor depending on the type of treatment it has been through. Some biosolids may have only a slight, musty-ammonia odor. Others have a stronger odor that may be offensive to some people. Much of the odor is caused by compounds containing sulfur and ammonia, both of which are plant nutrients.

Are biosolids safe?

The National Academy of Sciences has reviewed current practices, public health concerns and regulator standards, and has concluded that the use of these materials in the production of crops for human consumption, when practiced in accordance with existing federal guidelines and regulations, “presents negligible risk to the consumer, to crop production and to the environment.”

To determine whether biosolids can be applied to a particular farm, an evaluation of the site’s suitability is generally performed by the land applicator. The evaluation examines water supplies, soil characteristics, slopes, vegetation, crop needs and the distances to surface and groundwater.

There are different rules for different classes of biosolids. Class A biosolids contain no detectable levels of pathogens. Class A biosolids only have to apply for permits to ensure that the basic standards have been met.

Class B biosolids are treated but still contain detectable levels of pathogens. There are buffer requirements, public access and crop harvesting restrictions for virtually all forms of Class B biosolids.

Nutrient management planning ensures that the appropriate quantity and quality of biosolids are land applied to the farmland.

The biosolids application is specifically calculated to match the nutrient uptake requirements of the particular crop. Nutrient management technicians work with the farm community to assure proper land application and nutrient control.

Are there buffer requirements or restrictions on public access?

In general, exceptional quality (Class A) biosolids used in small quantities by general public have no buffer requirements, crop type, crop harvesting or site access restrictions. When used in bulk, Class A biosolids are subject to buffer requirements, but not to crop harvesting restrictions.

In general, there are buffer requirements, public access, and crop harvesting restrictions for virtually all forms of Class B biosolids (treated but still containing detectable levels of pathogens).

Other uses?

Biosolids have been used successfully at mine sites to establish sustainable vegetation. Not only does the organic matter, inorganic matrix and nutrients present in the biosolids reduce the bioavailability of toxic substances often found in highly disturbed mine soils, but also regenerate the soil layer.

In forested areas, biosolids have also been found to promote rapid timber growth, allowing quicker and more efficient harvest of an important natural resource.

Biosolids can also be composted and sold or distributed for use on lawns and home gardens. Most biosolids composts, are highly desirable products that are easy to store, transport and use.

Can anyone apply biosolids to land?

Anyone who wants to use biosolids for land application must comply with all relevant federal and state regulations. In some cases a permit may be required.

Where can I find out more about regulations?

The biosolids rule is described in the EPA publication, A Plain English Guide to the EPA Part 503 Biosolids Rule. The EPA has also prepared A Guide to the Biosolids Risk Assessments for the EPA Part 503 Rule, which shows the many steps followed to develop a scientifically defensible, safe set of rules.

And you can learn more online at www.epa.gov/biosolids.

(Source: U.S. EPA website, www.epa.gov/biosolids; and Ohio EPA, at www.epa.ohio.gov/dsw/sludge/biosolid.aspx.)

Related coverage: Wayne County residents oppose waste lagoon (March 15, 2018).

Wiles lagoon stirs debate in Wayne County (March 1, 2018).


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  1. It is so important to understand that sewer sludge aka biosolids is NOT just human excrement – it is a concentration of all domestic and industrial pollutants that go down drains and sewers. It has some good stuff in it, which plants can use, but a huge load of thousands of other contaminants.  Please read what independent scientists have to say on this issue –

    Dr. Caroline Snyder – “Land-applied municipal sewage sludge (biosolids) is a highly complex and unpredictable mixture of biological and chemical pollutants. Biosolids generated in our large industrialized urban centers is very likely the most pollutant- rich waste mixture of the 21st century.”

    Dr. Richard Honour – “”Few in any governments appreciate that nearly all chronic diseases are caused by long-term exposure to low levels of environmental contaminants and pollutants. We should be trying to minimize this exposure, not amplifying it. It is time to end land disposal of Toxic Sewer sludge, and look at cleaner, greener alternatives – gasification / pyrolysis.”
    Let’s get on the right side of history, and use this waste resource to make energy. It is time to stop covering Mother Earth with our cities’ toxic sewage.

    Prominent Scientists and Universities outline the Dangers of Biosolids –
    Cornell –  http://cwmi.css.cornell.edu/case.pdf
    Canadian Scientists – http://bit.ly/1sb2qOP
    UK Scientists- Aberdeen / Glasgow Universities – http://www.wte-ltd.co.uk/sewage_sludge_biosolids.html
    Yale – http://pubs.acs.org/doi/full/10.1021/acs.est.5b01931
    See this link on regulatory failures and risks – https://bioscienceresource.org/sewage-sludge-biosolids-land-application-health-risks-and-regulation-2/
    A great overview of the issues – http://bit.ly/2kehQlP by Dr. Thomas Maler
    A great article from Scientific American – https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/drugs-chemicals-seep-deep-into-soil-from-sewage-sludge/
    More info – http://www.sludgenews.org/

  2. You can always tell when the sewage industry it throwing A CON to the public and farmers. They use 1970-80 data from the EPA and even go so far as quoting right from the question and answers inside the EPA’s biosolids web sight which perpetrate consumer fraud.

    The key word here being “safe.” No one questions what the sewage industries definition of “safe” is. Everyone assume it is free from risk like the definition in the average dictionary.


    Rather it mean the risk is acceptable. But to whom? The farmer and public do not get a say in that risk and that RISK is formulated by EPA data from the 70-80 in order to make dumping industrial, medical, storm and household sewage sludge on farms and forest LEGAL. The EPA did NOT work to see if it was safe, they worked to make it legal to dump sanctioned by the US LEGISLATURE who were lobbied by THE special interests of the sewage industry.

    Are you naive enough to believe that the sewage industry has the public best interests in mind or was it simple greed.

    Here are some red flags from the same agency that made it legal:
    **Every US industry connected to a sewer can discharge any amount of hazardous and acute hazardous waste into sewage treatment plants as long as they report it. Yeow right! There are over 80,000 chemicals in commerce and growing even today. It ends up in biosolids which is broadcasted over forest, farms and even bags taken to the consumer’s home and used in their garden

    **US EPA Office Inspector General (OIG) Report # 14-P-0363 in 09/2014 / Google and read it for yourself. To sum up, industrial pre-treatment is not working and has never worked and nothing has been done about it. It ends up in biosolids and sewage plant effluent. “The priority pollutants list has not been updated since 1981”

    **So when you hear anyone from the multi-billion dollar sewage industry or anyone with monetary ties to any part of the sewage industry say the chemicals in biosolids are minimal and inconsequential or that they support composting with biosolids, ask them for any test showing the degree of hazard and concentrations of 80,000 chemicals that are found in biosolids or a composted biosolids like Milorganite from Milwaukee.

    **Chemicals that are persistent in the environment, bio-accumulate in people and/or wildlife, and are toxic are called Persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic substances (PBTs). With more than 80,000 chemicals being injected into our environment you and your family are at considerable risk of exposure. As long as they remain in commerce and may therefore be released into the environment, they will threaten the health of humans, wildlife including aquatic life.

    Cancer, Chronic Diseases and Birth Defect AND ALGAL BLOOMS !

  3. WOW! What a fantastic PUFF PIECE!

    By jingo–I can’t wait to have “bio-solids” in my backyard–nay, “bio-solids” shall be just like ROUNDUP made by Monsanto, who had one of its “puffers” exclaim in public on a TV news spot that: “Why ROUNDUP is so harmless, you could drink it!” And when a churlish bystander produced a cup and told the puffer to “Take a swig,” he sheepishly declined.

    There is ZERO in this piece reflecting any possible harm or danger.

    Methinks the “safety” of bio-solids PROTESTETH TOO MUCH–therefore, there really is harm.

    By the way, where do all the executives and big-wigs of these outfits promoting this stuff live? They should be the first to make a shining public example of having “bio-solids” in their backyard, eh?

  4. The EPA says biosolids are safe?! Run for the hills! The EPA is just another gov’t run agency that is as corrupt as the rest. The above comments are great ones filled with further information.
    There is nothing mentioned in the original article about eliminating prescription meds from biosolids. As far as I know there is NO method out there to clean out the prescription meds from the sewage and that in turn gets spread on the fields that conceivably grow food for animals or people. Now where do those residues go once they are spread on the soil? Do the plants uptake any of it? If the ground is put to pasture or to hay, do the grasses uptake that residue? Does it get into the animals that eat the pasture or hay?
    We have all read the occasional article that slips into the news that reports when treated water for municipal water plants are tested, there are prescription med residues found in ever growing amounts. Stands to reason that folks flush meds down the toilets and it ends up in this biosolid stuff as well. Lets see some third party testing that says the med residue has been eliminated before it winds up in the fields and in our food supply.
    For that matter lets see some third party testing that determine biosolids are safe to apply to anything. Get the EPA out of the picture if you want to get at the truth of the matter!
    Be alarmed! Quasar has had some shady dealings in other states to be sure. Do your research. Give this matter your due diligence!


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