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Shortly before the holiday weekend, a small shitstorm started brewing over the the elevated levels of lead discovered earlier this year on the White House lawn, site of the vegetable garden heard ’round the world. In a column for Huffington Post, Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety, wrote that National Park Service tests found “highly elevated levels of lead — 93 parts per million.”

“It’s enough lead for anyone planning to have children pick vegetables in that garden or eat produce from it to reconsider their plans: lead is highly toxic to children’s developing organs and brain functions — however, it’s below the 400 ppm the EPA suggests is a threat to human health,” Kimbrell added.

As leader of the Center for Food Safety, a non-profit dedicated to fighting Big Ag and its anti-environmental and sustainable ways, Kimbrell figured he had cornered the devil living in the White House dirt: a commercial fertilizer called ComPRO, made from a wastewater plant’s sewage sludge, which the Clinton Administration apparently had agreed to spread on the lawn during its temporary stay at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. It was a theory that Kimbrell borrowed from Mother Jones, whichfirst reported on the possible ComPRO connection.

Kimbrell took this rare gift horse — a highly visible White House vegetable garden and a major commercial fertilizer with potentially harmful effects — and rode that sumbitch as far as he could go. He rode her hard:

So what is sludge, really? A stinking, sticky, dark-grey to black paste, it’s everything homeowners, hospitals and industries put down their toilets and drains. Every material-turned-waste that our society produces (including prescription drugs and the sweepings of slaughterhouses), and that wastewater treatment plants are capable of removing from sewage, becomes sludge. The end product is a concentrated mass of heavy metals and carcinogenic, teratogenic, and hormone-disrupting chemicals, replete with antibiotic-resistant bacteria. There are some 80,000 to 90,000 industrial chemicals, including a host of dioxin-like deadly substances, which are allowed to be present in sludge under current EPA rules. What’s worse, there’s no way of knowing which toxic chemicals and heavy metals are entering the wastewater stream at any given time or in what concentrations. Sludge is always an unknown quantity, and therefore, assessing whether sludge is safe to use for growing food, is — in practice — impossible.

Farmers who care about what they grow know this, and — despite the best efforts of government and the sludge industry — growing food in sewage sludge is prohibited under the federal organic regulations. Still, sludge is still widely used as a cheap alternative to fertilizer, and unless you’re buying organic produce, it’s impossible to know if the food you eat was grown in it.

Scary stuff indeed. Kimbrell continues hitting the spurs:

So when people living or working in the vicinity of sludged fields and when diary cows and other farm animals grazing on sludged land have gotten sick from heavy metal, chemical or pathogen based maladies, the EPA has either ignored, denied or, in some cases, even fraudulently covered it up. However it’s getting harder for the agency to ignore the toll of sludged land as we see increasing reports in adjacent communities of elevated levels of cancer or deaths believed to be related to sludge exposure. In some areas where sludge has been heavily used, whole families are evincing the same symptoms: sores in their nasal passages, chronic staph infections, crippling headaches and sinus troubles. Yet — despite the mounting evidence — EPA wants to continue to promote sludge as a benign alternative to fertilizer.

And then Kimbrell rides his gift horse all the way to the front steps of the White House, where his steed kicks the Obamas square in the mouth:

The Obamas may be the newest sludge victims. Certainly Michelle Obama’s hopes of having a truly organic garden and healthy vegetables for her own children and other children who visit the White House have been dashed. The impact on their lives is symbolic; it’s not just the Obamas under threat, it’s all of us. Municipalities around the country have jumped on the bandwagon to sell their “biosolids” to sludge companies, a convenient solution to profitably rid themselves of hazardous waste. Over the last several years, we have all become unwilling guinea pigs, testing the safety of foods raised on sewage-sludged land. We’re also unknowing guinea pigs, since none of this produce is labeled to show how it was grown.

I have to admit, it’s a pretty effective dismantling of sewage sludge as fertilizer. But then journalist Eddie Gehman Kohan, a food politics dynamo over at Obama Foodorama, wrote a rebuttal piece the following day for Huffington Post. It pointed out two majors flaws to Kimbrell’s argument: that the lead levels are far below the 400 parts per million considered dangerous to childhood health and that the sewage sludge likely didn’t cause the elevated levels of lead.

This, in short, is why real dogged reporting is so much more important than agenda-driven editorializing — even when the agenda is worth fighting for. Once you start exploiting public events and public personas — without checking all the facts first — you lose credibility.

Image by dbking via Flickr Creative Commons Attribution License