Toxic chemicals deliberately added to sewage are being spread across a vast area of farmland, with potentially catastrophic effects. We’re suing the government to stop it.

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 18th November 2023

It’s an experiment with 8 billion test subjects, no controls and no endpoint. What happens when you release thousands of novel chemicals, most of which have not been tested for their impacts on human health or ecosystems, into a living planet? What are the effects on the development of foetuses, on human brains, other organs, immune systems, cancer rates, fertility? What are they doing to other species and to Earth systems? We seem determined to find out the hard way.

The gap between our actions and our knowledge is astounding. Of the 350,000 registered synthetic chemicals, about a third are impossible to assess, as their composition is either “confidential” or “ambiguously described”. For most of the rest, deployment comes first, testing later. For instance, the health and environmental impacts of 80% of the chemicals registered in the European Union have yet to be assessed. And the EU is as good as it gets. Our own government, as one of the benefits of Brexit, has just decided to downgrade the safety information chemical companies have to provide toan “irreducible minimum”.

Far from shielding us from this chemical load, the government is knowingly and actively exposing us. In 2017, the Environment Agency produced a startling report on the contamination of the sewage sludge being sold or given to farmers as fertiliser by water companies. It revealed that there has been a radical change in the disposal of many industrial wastes. Instead of taking their liquid waste to dedicated disposal facilities, chemical and cosmetics manufacturers now pay water companies for the right to dump their loads into sewage treatment works.

In other words, two completely different waste streams – human excrement and industrial effluent – are being deliberately and irremediably mixed. This filthy cocktail is augmented by runoff and drainage from roads, building sites, businesses and homes, laced with everything from tyre crumb to PFAS (“forever chemicals”). When this chemical shitstorm hits the sewage system, it’s either pumped directly into rivers through illegal discharges by the water companies or held back as sewage sludge, now a toxic and highly complex mess.

What then happens to it? Well, the next steps are as clear as sewage. There are, the report says, “a number of gaps in the Environment Agency’s understanding of what water companies are doing with tankered industrial wastes, how they handle them and … the destinations of sludge generated”. A proliferation of “waste brokers, contractors and subcontractors” ensures that the tracking of waste from source to sink is almost impossible. Transfer and consignment notes fail to list the industrial effluents the sludge contains or to explain where it is going. It is often “miscoded”, creating a false impression that it’s safe.

But from what the agency can tell, “much of the mixed sludge was destined for farmland”. That’s not surprising: about 87% of sewage sludge ends up as fertiliser. The manufacturers get cheap disposal for hazardous waste, the water companies get paid for accepting it, and farmers get cheap or free manure. But they are not informed about the added extras.

The testing rules for sewage sludge being sent to farmland have not been updated since 1989, and cover only heavy metals, fluoride and pathogens. But thanks to the mixing of waste streams and the proliferation of new synthetic chemicals, it now contains a vast range of toxins. These include, the report shows, polychlorinated biphenyls, dioxins, furans, phthalates, forever chemicals, antibiotics, huge quantities of microplastic and many other compounds. There are no legal limits for any of these poisons in the sewage sludge being spread on farmland. The report notes that some of the samples it took of sludge being sent to farmland were “vastly different” from the way they were described in the consignment documents. Agricultural land, in other words, has become a dumping ground for hazardous industrial waste – another gift to humanity from the privatised water industry.

A great acreage of both arable and pasture land is likely to have been contaminated with a vibrant cocktail of environmental toxins. What are the effects? We have no idea. Soils receiving this sludge are routinely tested only once every 20 years, if at all, and for none of the new contaminants. The report notes that their cumulative effects could render the soil “no longer … suitable for supporting crop growth”.

Alarming as the chemical levels it discovered were, the report states that these are likely to be “best-case examples”. A source at the agency tells me it did not investigate sludge from sewage systems receiving heavy industrial loads: the true extent of contamination is likely to be far worse. “Some of the levels,” they tell me, “are horrendous. The human health risks are phenomenal.” In some cases, this contamination would prohibit building houses on the land. “But you can grow crops and raise animals on it for human consumption!”

The 2017 report proposed urgent action to investigate the full range of contaminants and their accumulation in the soil, to separate waste streams, code and track them properly, and to change the dumping regime. So what did the government do? Bury it. The report was discovered only in 2020, as a result of a freedom of information request by Greenpeace. To this day, it has not been officially published and cannot be found on any government website. Only after it was brought to light did the government promise to take action: first immediately, then later in 2020, then in 2021, then in 2023. Nothing has happened. It published a feeble set of proposals with a 2023 deadline, but failed to adopt them.

Losing patience after six years of inaction, a group of us founded a new legal campaign, Fighting Dirty. We wrote to the government, challenging its failure to meet the 2023 deadline. Its immediate response? It dropped the deadline. So now, as the first of our cases, we are taking the government to court. We’re crowdfunding a judicial review of its failure to monitor and regulate the spreading of sewage sludge on agricultural land*.

This shitshow won’t end by itself. A lawsuit might be the only remaining means of protecting our farmland, our living systems and our health. Wish us luck.

*We met our target almost immediately, so we’ve now closed the crowdfunder