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Letter to the Editor and Response

To the Editor:

I was pleased to see, in Anthropology News’s May/June “Waste” issue, Nicholas C. Kawa’s essay on “Ten Ways in Which Human Waste Isn’t Waste at All,” with its attention to an important, yet understudied, aspect of human waste: biosolids. Here, I offer a political ecology perspective intended to  broaden our understanding of this waste product and its potential uses and dangers.

My journey into human waste began when I learned of a controversial petition by a waste management/alternative energy company to install a 10-million-gallon, open-air, unlined “manure lagoon” in a rural township of a midwestern state. A coalition of farmers and other township residents organized to resist the project, calling it a “poop pond” to emphasize that its contents would comprise human, not animal, waste. They ultimately learned (and I along with them) that the technical term for the end product of wastewater treatment plants ―sewage sludge that, as Kawa explains, can be “fed into an anaerobic digester” to produce alternative energy―is “biosolids.” The proposed facility was needed to store the biosolids left over from this methane-production process.

The company needed approval from the state’s Environmental Protection Agency, and in April 2018 that agency held a public forum on the proposal. A number of residents argued that the source material for biosolids―domestic wastewater―is not simply poop; rather, it is sewage sludge that includes toxic substances from household products and pharmaceuticals. And, while waste­water treatment plants are designed to remove biological pathogens, and digesters further sanitize the sewage, neither process treats most heavy metals or endocrine disruptors. The result, residents argued, is that hazardous substances end up concentrated in residue from digestion, and as such this sludge should not be stored in an open-air, unlined pit near family farms and residences.

These claims were summarily dismissed by state EPA officials at the townhall, and the installation was approved in September 2018. Meanwhile, the federal EPA’s Office of Inspector General had been investigating impacts of biosolids on human health and the environment. The resulting report, issued in November 2018, found 352 toxicants in biosolids, including “61 designated as acutely hazardous, hazardous, or priority pollutants.” And yet it seems unlikely this report will have much impact any time soon: since 1993 the EPA has been basically outsourcing its biosolids research to the Water Environment Research Foundation (WERF), an industry-affiliated group. As Ephraim King, then director of EPA’s Office of Science and Technology, told the New York Times in August 2010, while EPA has “staff that provide advice on projects, none are involved in decision making,” and at that time, the journalist writes, WERF did not have any plans for “health risk investigations related to biosolids application.”

The case that prompted my research into biosolids is unique to a particular set of factors―a political ecology approach, however, reveals some of the larger forces at work that likely apply to other cases throughout the United States. I intend this perspective to complement Dr. Kawa’s discussion of beneficial uses of biosolids by demonstrating that this material is more than human waste, in ways that warrant a cautious approach to its use and storage.

Deborah Davis Jackson
Research Professor, Anthropology
Earlham College

To the Editor:

Deborah Davis Jackson’s letter highlights two critical issues in contemporary debates regarding biosolids: storage and chemical composition. In many cities in the United States, biosolids are stored at wastewater treatment facilities or managed by third-party contractors, which are responsible for their land application. However, when biosolids are fed into biodigesters for energy production, the resulting effluent or digestate can be stored in manure lagoons, and then later applied on agricultural fields. Like Jackson, I have investigated how such manure lagoons in the American Midwest can have deeply disruptive effects on surrounding communities. But it is important to underscore that biosolids—treated sewage sludge—is often just one feedstock among many used in such waste-to-energy operations. Controversies have emerged in northern Ohio, for example, where manure lagoons receive digestate derived from biosolids as well as hog manure, food waste, and various other organic waste products. In my interviews with experts in the wastewater treatment sector, some have noted that biosolids are more strictly regulated by the Environment Protection Agency (EPA)—particularly for heavy metals—than the hog manure that is used as a feedstock in such operations. The chemical composition of such industrial hog manure is also exceedingly complex—including diverse cocktails of pharmaceuticals—but public concern in the Ohio case seems to fixate on the presence of treated sewage or biosolids. Regardless of the source of the digestate stored, it is undisputable that such lagoons are wholly unwelcomed in the communities where they are sited. What I see as a principal problem in such scenarios is private waste-to-energy companies’ insistence on using such open-air manure lagoons in the face of community resistance. Notably, municipal wastewater experts who I have interviewed also express deep concerns about lagoons because they reinforce negative public perceptions of biosolids.

Regarding the composition of biosolids, Jackson is also right to point out that biosolids are so much more than just poop. Think about all the substances that individuals and industries flush down toilets, spill down sinks, and dump down drains. All that material must be handled by wastewater treatment plants, which rely on physical and chemical processes as well as biological ones (hardworking microbes) to break it down and treat it. While part 503 of the United States Clean Water Act established the federal guidelines for monitoring of sewage sludge, including testing for nine heavy metals, there are many industrial compounds that are not actively monitored by the EPA. One emerging contaminant of concern that has garnered special attention is PFAS (perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances) or “forever chemicals.” Environmental scientists who I have interviewed in Chicago argue that these occur at relatively low concentrations in biosolids, at least in their testing of the city’s biosolids to date. What is startling is that most Americans already have PFAS in their blood due to other exposure pathways as consumers. The monitoring of emerging contaminants of concern does invite caution regarding biosolids and the contexts of their application. However, it also reveals how these are ubiquitous problems that characterize industrial urban ecologies. Perhaps then, to paraphrase Max Liboiron, we should start not by examining these problems at the end of the pipe, but begin a much deeper examination of how they got into the pipe to begin with.

Nicholas C. Kawa
Assistant Professor of Anthropology
The Ohio State University


Deborah Davis Jackson

Deborah Davis Jackson is a research professor of cultural anthropology at Earlham College, specializing geographically in the Great Lakes region of North America. Her research concerns cases of environmental injustice in which First Nations, workers, small-town residents, and rural communities are disproportionately burdened by industrial production and its toxic wastes.

Nicholas C. Kawa

Nicholas C. Kawa is an assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology at the Ohio State University. His most recent research investigates the promises and pitfalls of biosolids use in industrial agricultural production, urban gardening, and ecological restoration projects in the American Midwest.

Cite as

Jackson, Deborah Davis and Nicholas C. Kawa. 2022. “Human Waste… and Much More.” Anthropology News website, December 7, 2022.