Are Your Veggies Grown With Recycled Sewage?
Hey, get this: That stuff you flush down the toilet, well, it may have been used to grow the baby carrots you just ate. Millions of tons of our chemically treated bodily and industrial waste are spread onto US soil each year—sometimes right onto food crops.
Once sewage reaches a sewage treatment plant, it goes through processes to clean it and separate water from solids. The treated water may then be used to irrigate crops, while the treated solids (biosolids) can be used as crop fertilizer. Appetizing, isn’t it?
Despite undergoing sanitization measures, the safety of these two sewage byproducts is highly debated. One concern: Even though they’re rid of many harmful organisms, they often contain levels of pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs) from the slew of medicines, soaps, and cosmetics that make their way down our drains—and at least some of them end up in your produce, which, of course, ends up in you.
But experts tend to disagree on whether the quantity of PPCPs that are taken up by plants poses any health risk to humans. On Monday, at the National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society, researchers from the University of California-Riverside said that crops treated with recycled sewage water are likely safe. They reached this conclusion after finding “reassuringly low” levels of 20 different PPCPs in eight commonly eaten crops grown in realistic field conditions.
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Other experts think this claim may be premature. “My gut reaction is that levels of PPCPs are probably harmless—down in the part per billion range in the plant tissue—but on the other hand, some of them can affect hormonal activity at very low concentrations,” says Murray McBride, PhD, crop and soil sciences professor at Cornell University. “Secondly, there’s no toxicologist who can tell you with any certainty what the combined effect of these contaminants is as opposed to the effect of just one. There are thousands of PPCPs in the environment—not just 20—so there’s still a lot of uncertainty here.”
Another thing to keep in mind is that the University of California research only examined crops treated with recycled sewage water—not the sewage biosolids. So it may not present a clear picture of what’s actually in some produce since “treated water has far lower concentrations of contaminants than biosolids,” says Dr. McBride.
So how do you know if your fruits and veggies have been treated with either of these sewage byproducts? Well, you don’t, but we do know that only about 1% of the US land base has been treated with biosolids, says Dr. McBride. Your best bet is to buy organic, local produce when possible.
Video: A lot of vegies from a little water: Recycling hydroponic 'waste water' on field crops
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