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Poop Train

Tuesday, September 24, 2013 - 05:00 PM

You may not give a second thought (or backward glance) to what the toilet whisks away after you do your business. But we got wondering -- where would we wind up if we thought of flushing as the start, and not the end, of a journey? In this short, we head out to trace the trail of sludge...from Manhattan, to wherever poop leads us.

This all started back when we were working on our Guts show, and author Frederick Kaufman told us about getting sucked in to the mystery of what happens to poop in New York City. Robert and producer Pat Walters decided to take Fred's advice and pay a visit to the North River Wastewater Treatment Plant... which turned out to be just the beginning of a surprisingly far-ranging quest.

Want some more sewer fun?

Read: As Robert and Pat report, some of that sewer sludge made it out into the ocean. Wonder what happened to it?

Play: Try out our Poop Quiz:


Frederick Kaufman and Pat Walters


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Comments [67]

Don vincent from DC

Prominent Scientists and Universities outline the Dangers of Biosolids -
Cornell -
Canadian Scientists -
UK Scientists- Aberdeen / Glasgow Universities -
Yale -
See this link on regulatory failures and risks -
A great overview of the issues - by Dr. Thomas Maler
A great article from Scientific American -
More info -

Mar. 12 2018 01:08 PM
Ken from NY in 72

I'm dubious of the comment that all of the city's sewage was dumped untreated into the Hudson until 86'. I say this because when I was in high school in 72 we went on a field trip to a sewage treatment plant (I know! very ecologically minded HS) in the city so they were treating sewage at least 14 years prior to 86.

May. 08 2017 06:41 AM
Toni J Wilde from Savannah, Ga

Even today, one may say that America needs to change the way our sewage system works. Some say that the waste is too close in contact with humans and that is one of the reasons why one may get sick so much. The multiple choice questions amazed me about home much people put their thought into this issue. Never once has it really crossed my mind before except for in the third grade when I learned that people use to throw their waste out the window during the medival times era; which caused many diseases.

Apr. 13 2015 09:25 PM
Harriet Truman from U.S.

Its important to make sure sludge doesn't leak or get too close to humans. It contains so many toxic chemicals. It was interesting to hear about where our waste goes in detail and overall I found that cool to learn about. Im kind of thankful for the good pluming that we do have hear in the U.S. because in other countries it just ends up to close for comfort. Im glad to know our waste doesn't just end up in the ocean. For the longest time I thought that's where it went.

Apr. 06 2015 10:46 PM
Harriet Truman from U.S.

Its important to make sure sludge doesn't leak or get too close to humans. It contains so many toxic chemicals. It was interesting to hear about where our waste goes in detail and overall I found that cool to learn about. Im kind of thankful for the good pluming that we do have hear in the U.S. because in other countries it just ends up to close for comfort. Im glad to know our waste doesn't just end up in the ocean. For the longest time I thought that's where it went.

Apr. 06 2015 10:45 PM
Toni L. Gatsby from NY

This was an interesting podcast not only because of the captivating title, but because who doesn't wonder where our waste goes? I had heard that before waste plants were around, our bodily fluids and such went to the ocean, polluting the wildlife of the sea. Overall, this lead to environmental reforms to protect our oceans from waste contamination. I was intrigued by the process of the treatment in New York because the process actually benefits different species of animals. I believe that is was a good idea to use the waste as fertilizer, but also weird to think about when potting plants or actually touching the fertilizer. Although the fertilizer helped put the waste to use and not contaminate the oceans and it also helped farmers produce more crops, it would take some getting used to. I think that states should try to put the waste to use instead of polluting the environment with human waste.

Apr. 06 2015 10:42 PM
Hermione Grisham

I think that that was a great idea. Using something that has no other use and putting it towards something helpful. When i was in the seventh grade I used chicken manure (fresh from my pet chickens) to see if it was an effective fertilizer. It was and was better than MiricalGro. I think that the nation should have liked this idea and not turned away from it.

Apr. 06 2015 10:18 PM
gdl from NY, NY

.. why can't the treated 'sludge' be given/sold to the farmers in New York state? ! the ones that make up the Greenmarkets in Manhattan, for example- ?

Mar. 30 2015 09:48 PM
Elinor L. Rosseau from United States

The one time our country thinks of an effective solution for waste materials, of course the integrity and morals of humans shoot it down. If waste is not properly disposed of, it can leak into our underwater aquifers and contaminate the water there, but if used as a natural (clean) fertilizer, we solve problems of using human waste in an effective way. This is a great idea yet, some people have dislike it because using human poo is soooo much different then animal. Well its not and its a clean fertilizer compared to a hydrocarbon or harmful un-organic one.

Mar. 30 2015 09:25 PM
Ayn A Tennyson from Oviedo FL

Once our poop is flushed, we never think about it again. But where does it all go? I once visited treatment center for waste, where all of the poop and other gross things go. It was an eye opening experience and the smell of hundreds of different poops was horrendous. The idea of our waste being tossed into the ocean may explain a small part of why parts of it is so polluted. If trash wasn't thrown in the ocean for so many years, I wonder how the water would look today..

Feb. 01 2015 12:32 PM
Elie S. Totsky from Oviedo, FL

I believe that this podcast really made me come to the realization of how our waste that we create is actually treated. To think that your waste is a home for a family of spiders or for different bacterias that grows and multiplies as we speak. It really made me question what I actually knew about the treatment and management of waste. To think that we dumped our trash into the oceans until the 80's sounds crazy to me, but wait this is actually true and thanks to this podcast, I would probably never have known that. I guess I know what to bring up next time I'm in a boring conversation.

Nov. 10 2014 10:40 PM
Lyra K. Christie

This podcast was definitely a gross yet interesting journey. I honestly have never though about how much effort it takes to treat waste, and especially how it is dealt with after it's treated. It's crazy to think that there's an entire ecosystem in the NYC sewers with spiders and bacteria. I also think that it's hard to believe we were dumping waste into the oceans and rivers up until the 80's.

Nov. 10 2014 10:01 PM
Toni R Sinclair from Florida

This podcast intrigued me from the title down to the content. I have thought about where sewage goes, but never thought I would find the answer to that. I was pretty grossed out with the imagery, and descriptive diction used in this podcast. A "thick soup of sewage" was probably the worst. It is also crazy to me that just in NYC, 1.3 billion gallons (7 billion pounds of water) are used. Incredible, and disgusting!

Nov. 09 2014 10:02 PM
Rudyard L. Kevoac from Florida

The step-by-step walk through through the treatment of excrement was eye-opening. I've never realized that it required so much effort to "clean" up poop. It's amazing to think that for a majority of human history poop wasn't processed, and instead was just an accepted norm.

Nov. 05 2014 03:05 PM
Gandalf G. Bond from Florida

This podcast was very interesting to me because I never really thought about what happens after we flush. I think it was a great idea to use the waste as fertilizer for crops but I understand why it was never applied for this use on a large scale. It makes sense that farms would only want to use the best quality fertilizers, and the fact is that the sludge from human waste isn't great quality for growing crops.

Nov. 03 2014 06:57 PM
Lancelot M. Gatsby from NYC Sewage

I find this story actually very interesting. It is a bodily process that everyone goes through multiple times a day and no one really thinks twice about it. The whole process is way more in depth than I could possibly imagine while resting upon the porcelain throne. I had no idea that some human waste was actually used for fertilizer I knew manure was but I had no idea how it happened. It was also very interesting that so many states actually denied New York City human sludge. Considering that all the sludge is biologically the same as any other sludge from across the world it is amusing that so many shut it down so quickly and were so fast to blame it. Then as they started to learn about it it was crazy how it spread across the nation after the Colorado explosion. Furthermore it is especially amusing that our own waste led to an amazing end product that is wheat for bread across the country. But what a twist it took at the end.

Nov. 03 2014 06:31 PM
Catniss J. Moore

There are so many things in life that I never even think of. Poop getting flushed down a toilet is one of those things. It's crazy how there's a process for everything! Even poop getting flushed down a toilet. This was definitely a super interesting podcast.

Nov. 01 2014 12:21 PM
Asimov M. Gandalf from Orlando

I found it very interesting to know about the entire process. It's funny how people will reject a good product because it's from NYC, and very disappointing that, due to cost, something that was really helping the world was stopped. It really is too bad how money controls everything. Now this useful bio-solid is being buried in landfills with garbage. What a waste of a resource. Mike Holland, PhD from Chapel Hill, NC I have a quick question. Would the hormones in the sewage be in there from the industrial waste mixed in with it, and is there no process to remove them? I'd like to know more on the subject.

Oct. 26 2014 06:49 PM
Andrew Roy Jackman from Salt Lake City, UT

If someone wanted to use this kind of fertilizer, where would he get it? My searches online got me to 'humanure', which, as far as i can tell, is just letting poop compost, very different from what we're talking about. Are there sites that document sources for the fertilizer? Clearing houses?

Aug. 22 2014 01:54 PM
Mike Holland from Sxphw, NC

Dan From Syracuse:
You state "that in order to protect our rapidly expanding human population we must have industrial wastewater treatment"

The problem is that industrial waste water and residential waste water is mixed and then spread on farmland.

Get the industrial chemical out of the water stream and you would reduce much of the problem. The problem is not caused by people fighting to protect their health but by lack of imagination on the part of those producing this waste material on how to reuse or dispose of it.

The real problem is the lack of ability on the part of those generating the material in cities to see thru the marketing this industry has produced.

One way to help you clear up your vision would be to suggest you look at what percentage of this material is sprayed on land within our own city limits and that of other cities.

The almost 100% lack of use within cities should give you a good indication of just how unsafe this practice is.

So, yes, you may need large municipal facilities for a populous planet, but you need to engage your imagination and get this harmful material, full of un-cleaned up industrial waste, off our scarce farmland.

Apr. 28 2014 11:33 PM

I cant believe New York dumped its sewage into the river up until 1986. The sewage system seemed like a very simple thing, but after listening to this, I realize that it is very complicated process, and its a good thing people have innovated new ways to use waste, like for fertilizer.

Apr. 25 2014 11:52 PM

I found this podcast interesting because I have wondered where our waste goes sometimes. When they said it went into the ocean before they put it into a sewage tunnel, it didn't surprise me. It explains why there was trash and waste in some parts of the ocean. I did already know that you can use waste as fertilizer but it is interesting how a state has its own fertilizer that they sell to other places. It was funny actually knowing that people buying that fertilizer are putting other peoples waste onto their yards or crops. I do find it interesting how waste can be used as fertilizer because the chemical in it seems to be safe for the plants, especially crops. It amazes me that crops have a better chance of surviving if you put fresh fertilizer down. This definitely explains why farmers put down cow manure on crops.

Apr. 22 2014 04:25 PM

I found this podcast very interesting because I do sometimes wonder where does our waste go after we flush? It does not surprise me that before waste treatment plants were established, the waste was disposed into the ocean.This ultimately lead to environmental reforms to protect our oceans from waste contamination. I was intrigued by the process of the treatment in New York because the process actually benefits different species of animals. It is amazing that the treatment plant has its own little ecosystem in doors.I think it was an excellent idea to ship the excess waste to Colorado to be used as fertilizer and I don't think it was the best choice to stop shipping it. The fertilizer helped put the waste to use and not contaminate the oceans and it also helped farmers produce more crops.New York should try putting the waste to good use again instead of disposing of it landfills.

Apr. 18 2014 08:50 PM

I thought this podcast was interesting because it tells us the journey of our poop... which we don't think much of after we flush away. However it makes me wonder where all the waste would go for the rest of the world. If it were to all end up in the ocean... well that wouldn't be so good, but people are blocking it from contaminating water and building sewage plants to keep our waste. It also reminds us that we should be thankful for having plumbing because when the world didn't, it would pile in the streets and stink up the whole town. Now, instead of the waste piling up, people are making them into fertilizers which is a great way to "recycle" the waste. So, maybe the next time we flush, we should be thanking or thinking of these people who solve our poop problems so we can live simpler lives

Apr. 11 2014 11:30 PM

The history of how the human wastes were just left in rivers is very surprising because one would expect to realize that it would contaminate the waters. Of course, we are now more technologically advance therefore we are able to test waters and create sewage plants to contain wastes now. It's amazing knowing how large these underground sewage plants are, but it is a necessary size to contain the wastes of a whole city. It is good to know that these sewage companies are isolating these waters from natural waters so they will not be contaminated. It is also very interesting to know that these companies process the wastes and make them in fertilizers for farmers. Many people do not know about the great importance of these plants but the people who are a part of this know everyone appreciates there work.

Apr. 10 2014 11:59 PM
Joseph Campbell

I think it's interesting how the process of poop is flushed down the toilet into the sewage. Its amazing how we take all the little things like th for granted and seeing how mother nature and can help with decomposing our poop is amazing.

Apr. 10 2014 09:02 PM
Coose6 from Florida

I'm super interested in cycles and this seemed like an interesting thing to listen to. I enjoyed learning about how poop originally was flushed into the river. I also really enjoy how vivid they describe the poop and it was a very interesting podcast!

Apr. 10 2014 07:25 PM
Mike Holland, PhD from Sxphw, NC

Dear Isaac Hopkins from State College, PA ,

Please see my earlier post about industrial waste being treated by city sewage facilities. Your facility may not have harmful chemicals dumped into the sewage, but a college sewage plant is hardly the norm... the norm for most US cities is to collect and concentrate toxins in the sludge then move that part out of the city and their legal liability with no US testing on the health of this process, to date.

It is understandable that an academic is living in an ivory tower and unable to see this risk to our rural populations, but this show is not produced by academics, only about academic topics, with academic interviewees... and they know better, or were simply too busy or too lazy or too well rewarded to dig any deeper than the most superficial and industry friendly level. We now listen to this show with Snopes pulled up in the browser.

Feb. 22 2014 09:09 PM

Jim Davis of Garfield lore has an amazing "living machine" at his studio in Muncie, Indiana used to treat bio waste and grey water. Not necessarily a solution for NYC, but an inspiration to think differently about the problem of human waste. Here is a starting point:

Dec. 19 2013 11:08 PM
Tim from Midwest

Amazing that there is so much concern about the treatment re: human waste and the various final resting place options.

If 'we' are so concerned about what ends up on our plate or potentially contaminates our water, then I kindly ask the RadioLab folk to dive into the world of "animal feed" and start asking why corporate farms have turned our vegetarian animals into carnivores and cannibals (animal feed comprised of 'low-value' animal parts).

Further, explore the label GRAS (Generally Regarded as Safe). There are several companies that 'self-proclaim' GRAS certification for their chemicals, which are used for the conditioning of waste streams. These 'wastes' then become one of the ingredients of corporate feed lot 'food'.

Dec. 09 2013 04:58 PM
patrick kelly

I liked that, but I just can't take technology articles seriously when they use pounds and gallons. Get with the science units, people.

Nov. 04 2013 06:18 AM
Bradley Lusk from Arizona State University

Great podcast. Glad to see science related to my research finally getting some public attention. I'm looking forward to a follow up discussing pathogens, heavy metals, and recalcitrant organic pollutants found in 'biosolids'. Also, a discussion of class 'A', 'B', and 'C' biosolids and the costs associated with treating wastewater to those standards would be very beneficial. This issue is much more complex than presented here, but I understand the limitations of a 20 minute time slot.

Nov. 01 2013 10:11 PM
Marvel from Nashville, TN

Aljazeera America published an article today that is poised to rebuke substantial parts of this program.

The article, in short, takes it as a matter-of-fact that biomass is positively harmful to the communities it's deployed in. Hence, the author spends the majority of his time tracking who in the system is corrupt enough to be letting these environmental disasters go on.

What is going on here?

Oct. 23 2013 12:04 PM
Thomas from Milwaukee

Good segment as usual. Just a correction with the reference to Milorganite being "treated poop". The product is actually made from the dried microbes that are used to break down the bio waste in anaerobic digesters. It should also be noted that sewage is made up of more than just human waste. Americans generate around 33 million tons of food waste each year and a good portion of that is sent down the disposer, which eventually becomes part of the sludge that hopefully becomes reusable energy through the generation of methane and biosolids when teamed up with capable wastewater treatment facilities.

Oct. 22 2013 04:50 PM

Did no one mention that "bio- solids" is a public relations renaming of Toxic Sludge? Please check out the book "Toxic Sludge is Good for You" by John Stauber & Sheldon Rampton. It is not a new book, but it does point out how public relations firms will try to spin a problem and make it look like a gold mine much to the public's detriment. It wasn't called "Toxic" for no reason!

Oct. 22 2013 12:40 AM

When this podcast arrived at the segment where the cost of shipping biofuels came into the picture for the reason why the program has effectively ended [the discussion of how 25 cents per new yorker would cover the shipping of biofuel use in Colorado]; I noticed that the cost of normal manure and it's additives was never mentioned in that cost/benefit analysis!

I would be interested to hear more about the balance of shipping costs and the cost of ammonium-product additives [that probably needed to be added to the biosolids before use on farms] between the different manure choices discussed in the podcast.

Also, the origins of the other manure that was temporarily replaced by biosolids - was it from factory farms, or made specifically for the farmers? Because I assume the disposal of manure from factory-farmed animals is similar to the burying disposal method of human waste, making the biosolid use almost seem like a moot point.

Planet money should get on this topic...

Oct. 17 2013 04:03 PM
Jesse from Portland, OR

I appreciate the attention given to humanity's own nutrient cycle and thought you would be interested in what Arcata, CA began doing in the 1980s. Arcata built a wetland to treat its municipal wastewater. The wetland is performing magnificently and is continuously fueling a vibrant ecosystem of plants, animals, and migratory birds. It's fascinating, beautiful, and effective. I worked there for a year testing water quality for research to improve its effectiveness and am still working to realize all of Nature's incredible facets.

Oct. 16 2013 01:20 AM
Christopher Wethoff from Los Angeles

My daughter referred me to this Pod Cast because I spent most of my career as a City Attorney for the City of Los Angeles dealing with the many issues faced by municipalities dealing with large volume wastewater treatment. 27 years as the Public Works General Counsel for the 2nd largest City in the US gave me a first hand look at the "sludge" issue every city in America faces. My City hard hat, given to me by the Bureau of Sanitation, says: "Sultan of Sludge" right under the City seal. In the late 70's Los Angeles signed a federal Consent Decree requiring it to stop Ocean Disposal of its sludge by December, 1988. I spent the years before 1988 working with our engineering staff, both internal and consultant, moving towards that goal. I am proud to say that we met the deadline ahead of schedule, and by 1990 Los Angeles had created a multidimensional program that beneficially reused 100% of what by this time had been renamed "biosolids" by the wastewater industry. Like New York, we were transporting our biosolids off site to farm land, first to Yuma Arizona and for the last 18 years, Kern County, just north of Los Angeles. Los Angeles has reused every ounce of its biosolids since 1990, amounting to millions of wet tons. Unfortunately, LA ran into the same anti-biosolids mind set that New York ran into. In fact, Los Angeles, with my help, bought its own farm in Kern County, in the late 1990's in an effort to control its own fate as less and less farm land became available for reuse of biosolids. Sure enough, Kern County tried to drive LA off its farm, first by requiring the City to go to "Class A" biosolids treatment at a cost of over $25 million and then by politically having the citizens vote to "ban" the land application of biosolids in the County while cities within that same County land applied their own "Class B" bioisolids just a few miles away from the City of LA farm. (What City could EVER get citizens to vote to land apply "human waste" to land?? Needless to say LA sued, we won, then lost and then won again, and the case is currently up on appeal. Within the industry we refer to the public's aversion to biosolids as the "yuck factor" (probably also applies to the whole wastewater issue). Everyone simply wants to flush and forget. Kern is an agricultural county which produces millions of tons of raw manure every year which is placed on land, untreated. Since I retired, Los Angeles continues to fight the good fight for sound science and common sense in their ongoing court battle with Kern County. It is time for all citizens to understand that recycling of wastewater and biosolids are in the public interest and stop all the unfounded attacks on reclaimed water with the "toilet to tap" mentality and the battle against the reuse of biosolids with their "not in my back yard" approach.

Oct. 15 2013 02:53 PM
Mike Holland from Saxapahaw, NC

The NYC sewage lover, Mike at the sewage plant says they couldn't get Texas to take their sewage waste...

but "In 1994, Michael Moore on his program TV Nation, produced an editorial piece on Sierra Blanca, Texas: how NY Sewage was being hauled to Texas and dumped near the impoverished town. Merco, the company profiting from the practice, retaliated with a libel lawsuit against Kaufman, TV Nation and its parent company, TriStar Television but the case was dismissed on appeal."

The few facts in this piece are off target... and the motivations are left out entirely, unless they help NYC sewage operators.

The comment about ocean dumping did not explore why congress outlawed this process, only what inconvenience it became to the city.

It was shown to be killing the ocean... Even congress, as dysfunctional as they are, were able to see this was harmful material... why didn't radiolab ask the follow-on question, "if it's harmful to our huge ocean, how can it possibly be safe to use on a small farm field?"

Oct. 05 2013 10:59 AM
damion from NYC

Around the 14:45 mark, Ben says that the farmer went from 40 bushels to 66 bushels – an increase of a third.

It's actually an increase of ~65% (40 + 26 = 66).

Borrow Krulwich's abacus, gosh darnit!

Oct. 03 2013 10:25 AM
Diego Hernandez from Modesto,CA

Great comments on behalf of the listening community. If I had enough time to read all the valuable links posted I would. The safety science deserves another look.

Oct. 03 2013 09:52 AM
Kim Nace from Vermont

As we stretch our thinking together to find real, sustainable, ethical and affordable solutions to our massive population's excretions - we could perhaps revisit and challenge the water based transport of poop and pee. We can say goodbye to the flush toilet. Mixing water and the nutrients from our bodies' "waste" and then also mixing this black water with industrial waste creates a toxic mess which then requires massive treatment and energy to extract each substance for re-use. There is no "away" in this world any more and we are now keenly aware that we have to live within the cycles of the natural world - or no longer survive as a species.

Dry sanitation systems exist and are being perfected, and to make these the norm demands a committed turn away from our current practices to new ways of managing human poop and pee. By sequestering the pathogens in poop (and allowing it to compost) and by diverting urine to its own stream for simple treatments - we can expediently close the food nutrient cycle, and have clean rivers and sustainable farms. Learn more about our pilot project at the Rich Earth Institute.

Oct. 02 2013 09:11 PM
Brady from Brooklyn

Really love you guys, but Radiolab missed the boat on this one. While the strongpoint of the show is to imbue emotion into otherwise data-heavy subject matter, the emotional appeal this time ran roughshod over the facts.

Biosolids are not all they're cooked up to be, despite our genuinely sincere wishes otherwise. Like many cities, San Francisco tried to give away its biosolids a few years ago, and I wrote an investigative piece for the San Francisco Bay Guardian about why it was a wrongheaded move:

I empathize with the CO farmers. They're feeling the squeeze. But the City of New York is doing the right thing by burying this stuff far from where it will enter our food supply. It may sound like a bummer, but it's actually the right thing to do.

Oct. 02 2013 08:16 PM
Todd Cory

next time you do a program on how great bio-solids from human poop are please include the other nasty things in this stuff:

an excerpt:

Sludge is a thick, black-brown pudding-like substance that's left over after raw sewage waste is filtered at a wastewater-treatment plant. And no matter what the sludge boosters say, it is Grade-A toxic stuff. Sludge — or "biosolids," as the sludge industry likes to call it — is more than just human shit; it includes all sorts of stuff that gets flushed down the toilet. Analyze it and you'll discover a diverse world of bacteria, viruses, parasites, worms, killer fungi, antibiotics, prescription drugs, heavy metals, PCBs (that's the plastic chemical that causes flipper babies), petroleum products and just about every type of industrial solvent known to man. Hell, some sludge even tests positive for radioactive waste. At the Nursery Product facility, all of that would be festering—or "composting"—right out in the open, a fetid, stinking mass laid out in rows 20 feet high, baking in the desert heat, periodically turned over with tractors.

Naturally, anyone living within a 30-mile radius of the proposed Nursery Products shit dump objected to the plan. The area is prone to high winds and powerful flash floods, which all but guarantees that its toxic, bacteria-infested sludge particles would be scattered by wind and water for miles around. Not only were opponents worried that the stuff would engulf Hinkley, with its 2,000 people, school, alfalfa fields and dairy farms, but that toxic sludge particles would surf the powerful desert wind all the way to Barstow, a city of 22,000 and a major thoroughfare for traffic moving between Las Vegas and Los Angeles. These concerns weren't theoretical. Nursery Products used to run a similar — but much smaller — sludge composting plant in a nearby desert town of Adelanto (the "parent trigger" school privatization city) in the mid-2000s, which it was forced to shut down after locals started getting horribly sick.

Oct. 01 2013 11:47 AM
Mike Holland from Saxapahaw, NC


You bring up a good point... the problem was unseen when it went into the river, unseen in regard to city budgets and not just NYC, but most cities, large and small.

When the law came down in 1993 and congress said no more dumping in the ocean, there were more folks involved, again, than just NYC, but you can imagine that with a market that large a group of "middle-men" quickly came to the fore... and here we find the other part of the story that our loved (I mean, really adored!) Radio Lab dropped the ball on... the deals.

Right at the onset, NY tried to ship to the poorest counties along the Texas border. The image problem is construed to be one of "ew, NY", but we all love NY... it's simply an "ew, keep your waste in your own back yard" general principal at play.

The middle men helped overcome this by re-imaging the stuff as "biosolids" and cooking up this scheme to bring Apple pie and mom and pop farmers into the picture... they dished up Americana on a plate and re-purposed this hazardous material thru simple shill behavior and advanced advertising... and some crooked deals.

Sin-a-grow is one of the country's largest middle-man operation, currently in bankruptcy since this spring, and they have been caught bribing the city council of large cities, like Cincinnati, with politicians going to jail as a result.

The key part of your comment that cuts to the heart of this matter is the notion that it MUST leave the city! They'll truck, train or boat it at great cost to get it outside their city limits... at that point, under the current regime, it's no longer their cradle-to-grave responsibility like any other hazardous waste that a corporation would generate, would be.

This is the part of the equation that Radio Lab, Mike the sewer rep or any other city official pushing this material out into the countryside needs to explain to me before I'll believe them...

... Why don't you put it on your city golf course, city park, city cemeteries, city zoo, city botanical gardens, city road right of ways, city play grounds... if it's good enough to put on our food why do you keep working so hard, all of you, to get it out of town?

Sep. 29 2013 10:50 PM
Sarah L

NYC really had no waste treatment plants at all until 1986? That is a real surprise.

So is carrying the sludge on trains nationwide. Truly no markets or uses closer to home?

But it is good for the ocean and the rivers around NYC now they finally have sewage treatment plants.

Sep. 29 2013 06:31 PM
Mike Holland, PhD from Chapel Hill, NC

After reading over the previous 19 comments I'm struck by the politeness of those on one side, advocating for this show to have used actual scientific rigor in producing this show (instead of surprising trying to sway us with pure emotion, that tactic which this industry accused their foes of using)...

... and on the other side waste industry representatives, with their conflict-of-interst telling us it's all good, trust us.

I'm posting again, to point out something not mentioned in the other comments and which RadioLab's producers completely failed to address: Industrial waste dumping in to the municipal sewage system.

US law allows industry to dump 33 pounds of hazardous waste into the sewers, each year, un-documented.

On top of subsidizing industrial waste removal, the sewers also take in the inputs from reference labs and hospitals.

All the diseased blood, urine and feces from NY and other city's hospital labs are going straight down the drain, untreated. Full of virus, bacterial and fungal pathogens.

The industry produces grade A and B sewage waste... which allows for a known percent of the spray going onto fields to harbor up to 10% live virus and bacteria (grade B). These pathogens get blown across the street into schools, homes and onto food crops, and we eat them...

This article didn't mention hormones in the sewage waste. Hormones getting thru to the fields, uptaken by crops, eaten and affecting our health.

It didn't mention the settled court cases where children were killed, entire cattle herds died and farms were closed.

It's time for another episode... please leave industry, the sewer plant operators and the farmers out of the picture in that episode, because you already gave them their say.

Sep. 29 2013 02:15 PM
Mike Holland from Saxapahaw, NC

I'm so very disappointed in this sewage waste industry spin-piece. You are my favorite program, hands down, but you have failed your journalistic imperative to follow-the-money.

You spend the entire time in this episode giving the mic to the industry and making it seem like only NYC does this, where as almost EVERY city in the nation is shipping its sewage waste outside it's city limits...

Why did you fail to see this red flag and address the money issue?

Why would any rational city account approve hauling and spraying this sewage concentrate on farm fields, FOR FREE, if this was truly safe fertilizer?

No, they would bag it and sell it, if it were safe. They'd balance their city budget on this free resource... if it were truly safe.

Instead, your article fails to recognize a nation wide experiment in hazard liability transfer which has only been going on for the past few decades and will be shut down as soon as the industry is held to task...

...actually prove sewage waste spraying is safe around people, safe around food. (you forgot to mention, zero safety testing has been done on using this for food fertilizer).

Your entire episode is peopled by the industry and those that benefit from giving/getting free nutrient... This system is a scam. The field owner is almost always absentee owner. The field renter gets assistance hauling their corn to market. They are not cash strapped farmers... our local "grower" for this industry owns a NASCAR team.

I challenge you to return from your tour and produce a correction to your failure. Examine what is missing in this story. You need to examine this threat to our health on a national scale, and allow the many national foes of this process to lead you away from the "circle is broken" metaphor to the "EPA is broken" reality.

Sad, sad day when you find that RadioLab has been so thoroughly duped by industry shills.

Saddest of all, now i have to sit down with my 14 yr old daughter, who has been religiously listening to your podcasts these past years, and break her heart that her tow heroes could be so misled... I guess it's a part of growing up. (see how terrible it feels, oily and disgusting, when people try to manipulate you with "apple-pie-Johnny-Cash-do-it-for-the-Gipper" framing)

Sep. 29 2013 01:55 PM

All I can think of is Krieg from borderlands 2 screaming..

Sep. 29 2013 03:00 AM
Isaac Hopkins from State College, PA

I do soil hydrology research at a facility called the "Living Filter" near Penn State's University Park campus. Nearly all wastewater from the 45000-student campus is treated at a traditional wastewater treatment plant (primary and secondary) and then pumped to fields and forests where it is sprayed (up to 2 inches per week) onto the thick soils. The soil itself provides tertiary treatment. They've been growing crops watered and fertilized by this effluent (no other fertilizer necessary) for almost 50 years. Nitrogen, phosphorous, heavy metals, and pharmaceuticals have been tracked for decades in the water, soil, and crops, and I have seen no evidence that the crops are hazardous or that the soils are deteriorating.
To be on the safe side, the crops grown at the Living Filter are not eaten by humans, but are instead fed to Penn State's livestock herds, which in turn produce milk for the famous creamery. Testing and safety standards are more rigorous than for typical dairy production, and no problems have emerged, as far as I'm aware.
It is a common misconception that most farmers are growing crops for human consumption, but that's just not true. About 70% of American grain crops are fed to animals (a wasteful system, but we'll save that for another discussion). Even if direct consumption of crops fertilized with sludge makes people nervous, it could be used to feed livestock.
As far as shipping it to Colorado - that is wasteful. There are plenty of farmers much closer to NYC who should be using it, and Colorado has plenty of human waste of its own.
I would love to see a hard-core science follow-up to this podcast, in which Radiolab looks into both sides of this issue, at the current science, and at examples of similar systems that are still working. Maybe the guys would like to see the Living Filter. They could get cool sprinkler head sound effects!

Sep. 28 2013 11:07 PM
Dan from Syracuse, NY

As a treatment plant professional for the past 25 years with a strong science research background in microbiology I have a particular interest in finding beneficial uses for our human liquid waste. Unfortunately, the intense nature of the anti everything citizens have poisoned the discussion in how we manage these very valuable reservoirs of nutrients contained in our biosolid residuals. The reality is that in order to protect our rapidly expanding human population we must have industrial wastewater treatment. These facilities allow our big communities to exist. A utopian version of these systems that would eliminate the need for them has not been realized and therefore the anti everything philosophy greatly inhibits our ability to perform risk assessment. We really don't have a choice and must find ways of tapping into this resource stream. Treatment plants have been innovating technologies for decades to squeeze more contaminants both nutrient and others from the water to protect the receiving waters. We have been finding ways of making energy from anaerobic biogas. The one barrier we have great difficulty in overcoming is the yuck factor when it comes to reusing the water or the biosolids for benefits that will place them in contact with the humans they came from. We need these programs and we need to become more scietific about the risk assessment. Manure spreading, manure is also a biosolid, contains even greater risks both biologically and chemically. We need to remove our head from the sand and take responsibility for our land and water by using what we create. The paralytic fear is unfounded. Our post nuclear atmosphere and modern industrial environments already contain risks that we seem inured to and we seem to overemphasize the risks from our own human wastes.

One correction is that water weighs 8.34 pounds per gallon, not 7.45. The 7.45 is the number of gallons in one cubic foot of water. Thanks for a great discussion.

Sep. 28 2013 02:36 PM
Meherab from Broomfield, CO

An interesting piece no doubt, with a good deal of chemistry in the background. But, no one seemed to ask the question of whether or not it's right to fertilize human food with human waste. That Milwaukee or anywhere else is already doing is besides the point. Where was the moral, ethical, or pharmacological discussion?

Sep. 26 2013 03:27 PM
Marian from New Orleans

New York state would not take New York city sludge? They have farms there, don't they?

This was interesting. It reminded of watching a PBS program that demo'ed a process that ran human waste through a natural process. What a pity that we allow the short-term costs to destroy a long-term benefit.

Sep. 26 2013 11:23 AM
Doug from Boston, MA

Restoring the Poop Train should be on the ballot. Where does De Blasio stand on the poop train? For just $3.00 a year New Yorkers can responsibly dispense of their waste and help feed a hungry world.

There's an awesome sign across the Lower Trenton Bridge that reads "Trenton Makes the World Takes." New York City could give that sign a whole new meaning.

Sep. 26 2013 10:45 AM

@Alex from Brooklyn-
If you are interested, I recommend you go on a tour of the Stamford, CT wastewater plant which would be a short trip for you. They have a state of the art drying facility that essentially pelletizes the raw sludge to be later used in a process called gasification to produce electricity. Unfortunately the project had its hang-ups as the 2nd half of the equation (i.e. the waste to energy plant)never came to fruition and Stamford residents are left footing the bill of the dryer. Read about it here:

Sep. 26 2013 10:40 AM
Bruce in Jersey from New Jersey

This story - about the cycle of nutrients and the virtues of returning human waste to the soil - reminded me of a saying I thought up years ago that helped me get over my initial disgust at changing dirty diapers. It's a bit vulgar, so I'll use a couple of demure asterisks. New parents, remember:
"Sh**'s just food on its way to being fertilizer!"

Sep. 26 2013 02:51 AM

Finally a Radiolab podcast I can relate to! I am a graduate student doing research in the resource recovery field within the wastewater industry. As others have pointed out, it's not as easy as taking the dewatered sludge and applying it on soil. They have to be treated and be classified as a biosolid (as part of the US EPA guidelines) before it can be applied on land.
See here:

Even after treatment, there's still an on-going debate as to whether it's 'safe' to apply it on land (heavy metals, pharmaceuticals, etc). To overcome these issues, one way is to break down the sludge (whether by anaerobic digestion or some alternative process) to release Nitrogen and Phosphorus then use a crystallization process to produce struvite. Struvite can be safely applied as fertilizer without the concern of heavy metal concerns. This only really makes sense for large scale plants but it has been proven to be effective in both reducing sludge mass and nutrient recovery."

Sep. 26 2013 02:43 AM
Ben from Chicago

1.) dry into bricks
2.) burn in furnace
3.) create steam / generate electricity
4.) ???
5.) profit

Sep. 25 2013 10:23 PM

@alex Hey, this is Andy, and I helped produce this story. I wanted to tell you that North River (and some of the other plants around NYC) capture the Methane gas during the digestion process and actually use that gas to power the plant! It's not enough to be the soul-source of their energy but he says it accounts for almost 50%. He also said that the way the digestion process makes the methane is similar to how are bodies make farts... which I think it super cool. Thanks for listening!

Sep. 25 2013 04:35 PM
nwellin from Maine

While I commend the use of waste as a resource, I think there is a major issue here that everyone has touched on and you as reporters should have been more aware of. This piece was constructed to make it sound like using human waste is a good thing. I disagree.

There is an astounding amount of chemicals, drugs, and even medicines in human waste. Anything harmful you ingest is often excreted by your body. Even "positive" (depends who you ask) substances like antibiotics and birth control pills. All of these, we'll call them contaminants, are not broken down by our bodies and take a long time to break down in nature. For now, the key to the entire process is... time. When you take human sludge directly from a treatment plant and spread it on fields, you are spreading all of those contaminants back into an environment where they are absorbed by plants, insects, bacterica, and thus accumulate through the food chain.

Crops grown in the sludge will absorb and contain traces of antibiotics and other contaminants. With all the bread that is produced people are ingesting these contaminants daily, and while they may not see acute symptoms, these contaminants will build up in the bodies of those who never took them to begin with.

So, now you have people eating food that is laced with chemicals that can cause a plethora of issues, such as cancers, hormonal disorders, etc. Maybe the groundhogs and pests moved from the farms because they recognized the sludge was too toxic or inedible? I think no pests is a bad sign!

If the human was was from people living on an organic commune in Idaho, i would be fine with it. But, with the amount of prescription and street drugs in NYC, not to mention other toxins, I find it appalling that this sludge is ending up on agricultural land.

I would like to see Radio Lab do a follow up piece that looks into the effects of human waste in crops and all the testing. And maybe interview a reputable scientist or two. I can tell you one thing. As an environmental scientist I have learned about the effects human waste has in our water systems, and it is not pretty.

Sep. 25 2013 04:24 PM
Alex #2 from Brooklyn

I want to know more about this magical waste water treatment plant! Any chance they are giving tours any time soon?

Sep. 25 2013 03:49 PM

Having run a laboratory in a wastewater plant for 15 years I can tell you that the sludge contains high concentrations of metals, notably copper and zinc (among others). It is most likely for this reason that my state has deemed biosolids unfit for land application. That being said, I do not know how (or if) metals are taken up by crops fertilized by the biosolids. In my plant the sludge is dewatered after anaerobic digestion to roughly 17% solids and trucked to an incinerator. I believe the resultant ash is then taken to a landfill.

One positive aspect of the sludge handling process at our plant is that methane produced via anaerobic digestion is recaptured and used to both heat the digester to 98F and our buildings in winter time.

Sep. 25 2013 02:25 PM

Why can't we sell the stuff a lot closer to home? If it is as good as they claim there should be a market for this stuff that DEP couldn't keep up with.

Sep. 25 2013 01:37 PM
Brandon from Asheville, NC

Sasha, there are many options for dealing with waste responsibly. Just as an off the cuff sort of remark, I have to believe there are strict regulations on "humanure" and how it's applied to food growing land. For all I know there may be methods for removing at least some of those chemicals, and, then figure that spreading it over many acres is sort of a way to dilute what's left.

I haven't yet read through the site you linked, and I know it's dumb to make assumptions like I just did, but there has to be a way to close the nutrient cycle, or else we're just mining the soil, and we'll never be able to move away from chemical fertilizers. Burning or burying it in landfills, while better than flushing it into rivers, does not address this critical issue.

Sep. 25 2013 01:00 PM
Anthony Pirtle from Washington DC

The website Sasha links to is exceptionally light on facts and heavy on emotional arguments and scaremongering. If there were any actual statistical data demonstrating harm done it would certainly be at the top of their list of complaints.

Sep. 25 2013 11:25 AM
mitch from NYC

Its a well done piece that is first but has a sad ending...also the comment from Sasha leaves me questioning the efficacy of sending this stuff away....and now that Colorado is not taking it who is? or are we back to dumping it in the ocean....I hope not!

Sep. 25 2013 09:25 AM
Sasha Tobin from Fair Oaks, California

I really appreciate the effort of a science program investigating the issue of Sludge. However, I strongly suggest further investigation of this issue. While the program highlights the story of one farmer's relationship with Sludge, I have heard many, many more stories that are far more tragic. After all, Sludge often contains a lot of harmful contaminates. Just think about it. We don't only flush bio-solids down the toilet. We also flush a ton of chemicals. Furthermore, in adding the bacteria and other elements, what effect do those bacteria have on us when we breath them, when we make contact with them. The only positive stories I have heard about this process are from the people who sell the product. There are many farmers in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and California who have a different story of Sludge, and this is the story of the people who got the Sludge and lived near the Sludge. I understand the desire to tell the story of how waste can be used to create a form of environmental sustainably. Who doesn't? But then, why not look to some of the places in Europe, where it is used for generating power by burning the methane? My dear friend has been researching this issue for over five years. Look into her website, but also, investigate further. I thing there is something else going on with Sludge. United Sludge-Free Alliance

Sep. 24 2013 07:27 PM

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