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Poop Train

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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:


For more information on sludge and it's complicated history with the EPA and other environmental groups, check out Rose George's book, "The Big Necessity; The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why it Matters"


Frederick Kaufman and Pat Walters

Comments [7]

Caroline Snyder from North Sandwich NH

Even the title is misleading. Processed sludge is not just poop. It also contains a vast array of industrial chemicals, of which only a few are regulated. Sewage contains prions, pathogens, carcinogens, mutagens, endocrine disrupters, pharmaceuticals, radioactive waste, PCBs, dioxins, and other toxic and persistent pollutants. US regulations permit every entity connected to a sewer to pipe its hazardous waste into treatment plants. Sewage sludge is not a fertilizer; instead, it is the most pollutant-rich waste mixture of the 21st century. It does not belong on the land where we grow our food, forage, and fiber. Both EPA and USDA-- who control the current policy-- have known for decades that the current regulations do not protect human health, agriculture, or the environment. Why then are they still promoting this harmful practice by spending -
millions of our dollars to persuade the media, farmers, and the public that land applied sludge is beneficial and safe? For the answer see

May. 08 2017 12:56 AM
Darlene Schanfald from Sequim WA

Did Robert and Pat every drink the kool aid, or in this case, the sewage effluent. There are 80,000 to 90,000 contaminants in municipal sewage slugs and a host of pathogens that get passed on to the soil and sometimes uptake into plants when spread on soil. Wastewater treatment plants are not built to clean much; better the no cleaning but far from clean. It is now known that treatment plants can great antibiotic resistant bacteria. Sewage sludge has been sold as safe for soil amendment, but only 8 or 9 metals and a few pathogens are monitored. The waste is sold as compost because it has to be gotten rid of. Or the waste is spread on grazing land where animals uptake the contaminants and are sickened. If the meat makes ti to a grocery store, the contaminants are passed on to the human consumer. The science, worldwide, is replete with the damage to soils, crops grown in them, impacts to wildlife that graze on lands with sewage sludge, human health problems and deaths from breathing in the particulates. In more and more communities, the effluent is being used for crops and potable water. Even some beer companies use it. Treated? Yes, but for what. For the history of how this unsafe practice came to be, read Dr. David L. Lewis's book, Science for Sale.

May. 07 2017 11:47 PM
TheNewsJunkie from NYC

Here's the thing... by not shipping it out to Colorado they're saving us $24 million a year. So, it's nice that you figured out what the cost is per individual, per month. But in a city like New York, nothing is on a small scale. It all adds up and arguably, that $24 million could go to a whole host of more deserving needs... schools in poor neighborhoods, putting roofs over the heads of homeless families, giving uneducated people job training and work skills. So yeah, spend $24 million a year to do what feels good or spend it on what's really needed in our city?

May. 21 2016 11:00 PM
Deborah Cady from Connecticut

RadioLab would have benefitted it's listeners by first researching the subject of sewage sludge. It would have discovered the case of Andy McElmurray, who's family lost their large farm and over 300 head of dairy cows to heavy metals poisoning after applying bio-sludge to their fields for ten years. Their land can no longer be used for planting or pasturing. Further, one should ask what happened to the critters that attacked the crops, in the article. The only answer is poison.

In1993, laws were made to control some harmful material but the laws do not regulate many of the heavy metals, germs, toxic chemicals and dioxins that can be found in sewage sludge.

Here is a link to the McElmurray case:

Mar. 31 2015 03:18 AM
John Matel from Virginia

We use biosolids on our forest land. They are hard to get, since they are in short supply. Biosolids are a great way to recycle nutrients, as the article says. They also help rebuild soils and sequester carbon. They stink a little, which is why you might not want them too close to cities, but that passes quickly.

NYC putting them in landfills is terrible. If there was a sustainability code, they would be in violation. The ecological value chain is long here. Biosolids contain all that fertilizer and energy that went into the product. It certainly should be recycled in the truly beneficial way.

People recycle small amounts of paper. That is mostly a waste of time. If every New Yorker recycled ever pieced of paper in every office, it would not approach the benefit of recycling the sewage.

This blog post shows some of the biosolids on our tree farm

Mar. 29 2015 09:12 PM
Rich from Albany, California

Why can't arrangements with farmers closer to NYC be made? Once the Colorado ranchers demonstrated the value of the biowaste for their crops you'd think other ranchers/farmers would want it. Eastern countryside too populated? Generate too much smell? No effort made? Just wondering.

Mar. 29 2015 08:36 PM
Ken Maddon from Columbus, OH

Listening to the "Poop Train" story, I have to ask...If NY stopped shipping their poop to Colorado, whether due to transportation costs or whatever, why don't Colorado farmers start using Colorado generated biowaste? Denver has a rather large population...Does Denver, or other Colorado cities for that matter, not process human sewage? If the farmers are suffering because the trains from NY stopped, "buy local".

Mar. 28 2015 02:26 PM

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