Study Finds Toxic Traces in Biosolid Fertilizers

A new study has determined that fertilizers manufactured from treated wastewater may contain harmful organic chemicals. The study looked into the chemical makeup of biosolids in North America and could assist regulators in identifying compounds that need to be examined more carefully.

Biosolids are used extensively as fertilizers in various areas, including golf courses and agricultural lands. They may, however, bear traces of industrial chemicals, fragrances and pharmaceuticals that could pose a risk not only to human health but also to the environment.

The investigators, led by assistant professor Carsten Prasse of Johns Hopkins University, conducted an analysis of 16 samples of biosolids obtained from wastewater treatment facilities in three cities in Canada and nine cities in the United States. They found more than 90 compounds present in 80% of the samples.

The investigators then cross-referenced these compounds with the CompTox Chemical Dashboard. Their focus was to determine compounds that were most likely to pose threats to the environment and/or human health. Their findings included traces of carbamazepine, a drug used for bipolar disorder and epilepsy, and bisphenol A (BPA), a plastic component.

In his statement, Prasse explained that not much was known about potential organic hazards, but regulators still needed to know what fertilizers were manufactured from so they could be used more responsibly.

Despite the possible hazards, biosolids have a number of advantages. For starters, biosolids are rich in nutrients necessary for plant growth. They also decrease waste sent to incinerators or landfills and need less energy to produce in comparison to synthetic alternatives. In addition to this, biosolids assist wastewater facilities in revenue generation.

In 2022, more than one-half of the 3.7 million biosolid tons manufactured in the United States was utilized in the fertilization of landscapes.

It should be noted that while being in direct contact with biosolids may be restricted to occupation, the wider population may be exposed to contaminants absorbed by plants grown in these fertilizers.

The first author of the paper, Matthew Newmeyer, highlighted the need for more studies on this matter. The investigators are now planning to measure the identified contaminants in crops grown in soil with biosolids in an effort to determine whether their levels of concentration are something to be concerned about. In addition, they are examining risks to landscapers, composters and farmers who work with biosolids directly.

The study’s findings were reported in “Environmental Science & Technology.

For fertilizer users who are concerned about the extent to which the toxic elements in biosolids could be harmful, the option of manufactured fertilizers from companies such as Compass Minerals Intl Inc. (NYSE: CMP) remains open, since these have been in use for decades and their safety profile is known.

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