In the autumn, if you detect the sickly smell of human sewage close to home it may not be the drains or your local sewage pumping station at fault. That unpleasant smell could be drifting across from biosolids delivered to a local farm for spreading on fields as fertiliser.
Biosolids, humanure or ‘Nutribio’ as Anglian Water brands its product is the solid matter left after sewage treatment has extracted and recycled the water. Brainwave – let’s flog the solid stuff as fertiliser! After all, it is ‘organic’ and surely it must be better than manufacturing and spreading synthetic nutrients.
But consider for a moment where it comes from: not only homes but industry, laboratories, hospitals, funeral parlours, in fact any and all waste that is flushed down sinks, toilets and drains.
Despite treatment processes, the potential contaminants include hormones, prions, heavy metals, PFAS and micro plastics. These can be ingested by wildlife, make their way through the ground into the water table and get washed off fields into streams and rivers. Spreading biosolids is spreading micro plastics on land that until now may have escaped the plastics scourge.
What is surprising and deeply worrying is the lack of standards for monitoring and the knowledge gap of what happens once these contaminants are in the environment.
The debate over using waste-derived biosolids is ongoing. In the meantime you would think the precautionary principle would apply: no use until there is clear evidence that there is no harm. But of course there is money to be made and UK Govt has a record of caving-in to vested interests.
The water companies producing this stuff claim it is safe – but that is only within the conditions of use laid down by the Environment Agency most of which are self-regulatory. What could possibly go wrong?
• The Environment Agency & Secretary of State are facing legal action for not fulfilling a 2020 promise to introduce new rules covering biosolids. Read it here