LEAD Action News
LEAD Action News vol 10 no 1, June 2010 ISSN 1324-6011
Incorporating Lead Aware Times ( ISSN 1440-4966) and Lead Advisory Service News (ISSN 1440-0561)
The Journal of The LEAD (Lead Education and Abatement Design) Group Inc.
Guest Editor: Monica Maharjan, Master of Science Management and Master of Applied Sciences (Biotechnology).
Editor-in-Chief: Anne Roberts

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Biosolids used as fertilizer in China and other countries

By Kobe He, Intern, The LEAD Group, Edited by Anne Roberts

The increasing use of bio-solid or human sewage as fertilizer in farms is posing great environmental and health risks. Sewage is well known for its nutrients and cheap price. The use of sewage sludge as fertilizers can be a solution for disposal problems. Nevertheless, heavy metals such as lead are likely to be found in sewage: such materials can be absorbed by plants (the amount absorbed varies among different plants, details of which are found in fact sheet “Is your yard lead safe” by The LEAD Group) and can, in turn, significantly impair functions of human organs.

Raw sewage contains a lot of different nutrients and is likely to be used to irrigate cereal crops and certain vegetables such as spinach. It has been a  long time since sewage consisted only of human and animals’ faecal material. Since the first industrial revolution took place many undesirable materials have been included in sewage. As a result, nowadays most of the sewage collected from communities must be processed and treated before it is used as a farm fertilizer. The following materials are likely to be found in sewage sludge: water, faecal matter, toilet paper, hair, rancid grease and industrial chemicals (containing heavy metals such as aluminium, copper, zinc, lead, chromium, nickel, molybdenum, selenium, silver, arsenic, mercury etc).

Heavy metal content of the soil after harvest at varying levels of liquid sewage sludge application. (Source: PCARRD, 2002. Highlights 2001, Los Banos, Laguna. From Philippine Organic Agriculture Information Network.)

Heavy Metals Standard Limit* (ppm) Level of Metals (ppm) in Soils Applied with Liquid Sewage Sludge (t/ha)
0 40 80 120
Arsenic (As) 5.00 0.002 0.002 0.002 0.002
Cadmium (Cd) 5.00 0.001 0.001 0.001 0.001
Chromium (Cr) 5.00 0.067 0.065 0.065 0.079
Lead (Pb) 5.00 0.869 0.845 0.852 0.907
Mercury (Hg) 0.20 0.001 0.001 0.001 0.001
Selenium (Se) 1.00 0.001 0.001 0.002 0.002

For many years it has been unusual for farmers in western countries to use biosolids as fertilizer, as waste treatment is very complicated and expensive. In contrast, farmers in China have used human waste to fertilize fields for more than 4,000 years. After thousands of years of cultivation, China’s soil is still fertile and suitable for farming, and soil erosion is not yet common. Given the low price of sewage sludge as a practicable environmental option, movements for the use of sewage sludge have emerged in some developed countries such as the United Kingdom and the United States.

In China, given the rising price of water and chemical fertilizers, up to 10 million farmers are using raw sewage to irrigate and fertilize cropland.  Most of the farm operations are highly dependent on local resources, such as drawing water from seriously polluted rivers and lakes and using human sewage as fertilizers.

In parched regions of China, untreated wastewater is the only viable irrigation source keeping farmers in business, as the expense of delivering water from nearby rivers and lakes is prohibitive for farmers who earn less than $2000 a year. In order to reduce the expenditure, they frequently harvest untreated human faeces from latrines and spread it as fertilizer on farms. Even without the direct use of wastewater, there is another serious issue causing lead contamination of soil. The Chinese government does not have well- defined criteria for industrial waste disposal; many factories frequently emit wastewater into rivers and lakes without any processing and treatment, since there is little possibility of being fined and jailed. As a result, many toxins and heavy metals such as lead are released into the rivers and lakes where farmers tend to gather water for irrigation. This results in spreading toxins on their farms, which will remain in the soil for millennia if a clean-up never takes place. Toxins and heavy metals will be absorbed by the crops.

(Editor’s note: A study in 2006 found that 33.8% of children in China had a blood lead level greater than 10 µg/dL. See: Wang and Zhang)

Biosolids are also widely used in Europe and the US. In parts of Europe and elsewhere biosolids have been applied on agricultural land for more than a century. In the United States biosolid recycling is as old as farm reclamation, even as old as power generation from wind, solar and hydroelectric power sources. But in the US the use of biosolids in agricultural irrigation is regulated at both Federal and State level. Under certain sections of the rules, limits for metal such as lead in biosolids and requirements for biosolids applied to farmland have been maintained and established while also enforcing a risk assessment capability (Biosolid.com, 2002). In recent decades, many countries have actively participated in conducting field trials to determine the safety and environmental security of biosolid management.

The following accounts are from SourceWatch

In 1993, a team of researchers at the University of Arizona published a research paper that found significant numbers of human disease organisms even in treated sewage sludge.

Sludge pathogens can move through many environmental pathways – direct contact with sludge, evaporation in inhalation, contaminated groundwater, contamination of rodents burrowing in sludge, and uptake through the roots of crops

In Islip, New York, sludge was the cause of the disease that killed 25-year-old Harry Dobin, who ran a coffee truck at a Long Island Railroad station 1000 feet away from a sludge composting site. In July 1991 Dobin began suffering health problems. Doctors treated him unsuccessfully for asthma, arthritis, Lyme disease, kidney disorder and bronchitis. Finally in January 1992 when he could no longer breathe, they performed a lung biopsy and discovered Aspergillus fumigatus, a common byproduct of sludge composting. By the time the disease was correctly diagnosed, it was unstoppable, spreading to his spine, his legs, and finally his heart, leading to his death on September 23, 1992. Other residents of Islip complained of chronic coughing, nausea and other reactions.

Viruses, bacteria, protozoa, fungi and intestinal worms are present in sewage sludge. Many of the pathogens cause diseases that sicken, cripple and kill humans, including salmonella, shigella, campylobacter, E-coli, enteroviruses (which cause paralysis, meningitis, fever, respiratory illness, diarrhoea, encephalitis), giardia, cryptosporidium, roundworm, hookworm, and tapeworm.

Outside Sparta, Missouri, a tiny rural town whose sewage plant began operations in the late 1980s, dairy farmer Ed Rollers began having problems with his cows in 1990. They were falling sick and dying, and no veterinarian or university scientists could tell him why. The death and disease continued until late 1993 when the farm declared bankruptcy.

Scientific soil tests initiated by Rollers revealed that sludge dumped on a field ran onto his fields, which were found to contain lots of heavy metal contaminants. Tests on dead cows were postive for heavy metals, and lead was found in the liver, kidneys, bones and teeth.

In Lynden, Washington, dairy farmers Linda and Raymond Zander began to lose cows one year after sludge was spread on an adjoining farm. "We noticed . . . lameness and other malfunctions," said Linda Zander. Tests found heavy metals in soils at the sludge disposal site and in water from two neighbourhood wells that served several families. Raymond Zander was diagnosed with heavy metal poisoning, and several family members showed signs of neurological damage, which they believe is linked to heavy metal poisoning, including lead. Sixteen neighbouring families have experienced health problems ranging from flu symptoms to cancer.

Sewage sludge is often marketed as “free fertilizer” and welcomed by many farmers. However,  problems do not show up overnight. Lead is more likely to produce chronic long term problems rather than an acute attack, except at very high quantities, but the long term accumulation of lead can have as severe an impact on health, for both humans and animals. Symptoms of  this may appear years later. In the case of Zander and Roller, they did not realize what was happening until 2 years later (SourceWatch, 2010).

Legislation of Australia on controlling the amount of lead and other heavy metals that can be added onto agriculture land via sewage sludge

According to the environmental guidelines for the use and disposal of biosolids products published by NSW Environment Protection Authority, a grading system of contaminants  has been developed to assist in identifying the suitability of biosolids products for land use or disposal. Each contaminant is to be graded A, B, C, D or E (Grade E being the lowest grade),  Contaminant Acceptance Concentration Thresholds for lead (on dry weight basis) are Grade A: 150(mg/kg), Grade B: 150(mg/kg),  Grade C: 420(mg/kg),  Grade D: 500(mg/kg). The maximum allowable soil lead concentrations for agricultural land following biosolids application is 150 (mg/kg dry weight of soil) (EPA, 2000).

According to the Bureau of Statistics of China’s customs department, the total value of exports of agricultural product in China has reached 38 billion US dollars recently. 

According to the Shanghai Agriculture Committee, the total value of exports of agricultural product in China reached 31 billion US dollars in 2006 , which accounted for 3.9% of total global exports of 788 billion US dollars.

The proportion of exports of agricultural products from China to main import countries from 2002 to 2007 (Shanghai Agriculture Committee, 2009)

Years 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007
Nations % % % % % %
Japan 31.7 28.5 32.0 29.2 26.5 22.8
Hong Kong 11.4 10.4 11.3 9.7 8.6 8.3
Korea 11.3 12.1 9.2 10.5 9.3 9.8
US 9.0 9.7 10.0 10.4 12.2 12.0
Total 66.7 63.7 65.5 63.2 60.1 56.7


  1. Biosolid.com. (2002). Frequently Asked Questions.
  2. NSW Environmental Protection Authority (EPA).( 2000 December). Use and Disposal of Biosolid products. AVAILABLE TO REGISTERED USERS
  3. Philippine Organic Agriculture Network. (2006). Sewage Sludge as a potential fertilizer.
  4. SourceWatch. (2010). You say biosolids, I say sewage sludge.
  5. SHAC (Shanghai Agriculture Committee) 上海市农业委员会 Shac.gov.cn. (2009) 中国农产品出口贸易结构和变化趋势 [Translation: The structure and changing trend of agricultural export trade in China]
  6. Wang Sun-qin and Zhang Jin-liang, (2004) Blood Lead Levels of Children in China, in Journal of Environmental Health 21(6): 355-360.

English version of this file
Chinese version

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The LEAD Group Inc. Fact Sheet Index

NSW Lead Reference Centre and NSW Government Publications On this site

  1. About the Global Lead Advice and Support Service (GLASS)

  2. Main Sources of Lead

  3. How Would You Know If You or Your Child Was lead poisoned?

  4. Lead aware housekeeping

  5. Ceiling dust & lead poisoning

  6. Is your yard lead safe?

  7. Health Impacts of lead poisoning

  8. Rotary Questionnaire

  9. Lead poisoned Pets and Your Family

  10. Childhood Lead Poisoning Risk Factor Questionnaire

  11. Is Your Child Safe From Lead? - What Can You Do About Lead?

  12. Lead in Drinking Water in Australia

  13. Have We Really Resolved The Lead Issue?

  14. The Importance of the Availability of "Spot Tests" for Lead in Paint

  15. Pregnant or Planning a Pregnancy

  16. Breastfeeding and Lead

  17. Lead in breast milk

  18. Beware The Lead In Lead Lighting

  19. Renting and Lead

  20. What to do if you have too much lead in your tank water

  21. Lead Contamination in Stormwater

  22. Contamination At Shooting Ranges

  23. Banned: Leaded Wick Candles

  24. Lead, Ageing and Death

  25. Metal miniatures: How to minimise the risks of lead poisoning and contamination

  26. 7 Point Plan for the MANAGEMENT OF LEAD by Australian parents and carers

  27. Countries where Leaded Petrol is Possibly Still Sold for Road Use, As at 17th June 2011

  28. Lead Poisoning And The Brain - Cognitive Deficits And Mental Illness

  29. Facts and Firsts of Lead

  30. Lead mining royalties by state and territory

  31. Lead Mining Stewardship - Grey Lead and the Role of The LEAD Group

  32. Preventative Strategies of The LEAD Group

  33. What do Doctors need to do about Lead?

  34. A Naturopath's Experience Of Lead & People With Diagnosed Mental Illness

  35. Case File: Helping Manage Australian Lead in Petrol - How GLASS Works

  36. Glass Web & Service-Users, Experts & Volunteers, by Country; Countries with Leaded Petrol for Road Use & Worst Pollution

  37. Lead in ceiling dust

  38. Lead paint & ceiling dust management - how to do it lead-safely

  39. Esperance parliamentary inquiry follow-up factsheet: Where to from Here??

  40. Broken Hill lead miners factsheet 1893 with Note 20081015

  41. Helping a Doctor Help 35,000 Lead-Poisoned People Around the Lead Smelter at La Oroya in Peru
    Ayuda a un doctor que ayuda 35,000 personas envenenadas por plomo alrededor de la fundidora de plomo en la Oroya-Peru

  42. Fact sheet for Australian toy importers and traders

  43. Iron Nutrition & Lead Toxicity
    Informe de Acciones – Hierro y Plomo en la Nutrición

  44. Sanitarium-Are You getting Enough Iron

  45. Do-It-Yourself-Lead-Safe-Test-Kits-flyer

  46. Blood lead testing: who to test, when, and how to respond to the result

  47. Dangers of a blood lead level above 2 µg/dL and below 10 µg/dL to both adults and children

  48. Lead Exposure & Alzheimer’s Disease: Is There A Link?

  49. In CHINA - Blood lead testing: who to test, when, and how to respond to the result

  50. Why you should have your ceiling dust removed before you take advantage of the Australian government's Energy Efficient Homes Package: Insulation Program

  51. Alperstein et al Lead Alert - A Guide For Health Professionals 1994

  52. Ceiling Dust WorkCover Guide Lee Schreiber Final Nov 1999

  53. What can I do about climate change AND lead?

  54. The Need for Expert Clinical Assessments in Diagnosis Of Heavy Metal Poisoning

  55. Why you should have your ceiling dust removed before you have insulation installed

  56. Thirty Thought-Starters on Ceiling Void Dust in Homes

  57. Pectin: Panacea for both lead poisoning and lead contamination

  58. Nutrients that reduce lead poisoning June 2010

  59. Lead poisoning and menopause

  60. Fact sheet For Schoolkids From Professor Knowlead About Lead

  61. Prevention of Exposure to Lead at Work in Indonesia

  62. Mencegah kontak dengan timbal di tempat kerja di Indonesia

  63. How to Protect Your Family from Lead in Indonesia

  64. Bagaimana melindungi keluargamu dari timbal di Indonesia

  65. Cigarette Smoking & Lead Toxicity
     صحيفة معلومات: التدخين والتسمم بالرصاص

  66. Medical Evaluation Questionnaire For Occupational Lead Exposure

  67. Dangers of a blood lead level above 2 µg/dL and below 10 µg/dL to children

  68. Dangers of a blood lead level above 2 µg/dL and below 10 µg/dL to adults

  69. Biosolids used as fertilizer in China and other countries

  70. What are the lead poisoning risks of a lead pellet, bullet or shot lodged in the body?

  71. Alcohol’s link to higher lead and iron levels

  72. USA Case Definition of Adult (including Occupational) & Child Elevated Blood Lead Levels (EBLL)

  73. Low Level Lead Exposure Harms Children - A Renewed Call for Primary Prevention

  74. Occupational Health & Safety Fact Sheet Dangers of lead for roofers

  75. Let’s Make Leaded Petrol History - Let’s Make Leaded Gasoline History

  76. Lead, Your Health & the Environment. Available in Arabic, Chinese, English, Korean, Macedonian, Spanish, Turkish and Vietnamese 

  77. Lead Safe Housekeeping

  78. Old Lead Paint

  79. Working safely with lead

  80. A Renovator's Guide To The Dangers Of Lead (Brochure 30 pages)

  81. A Guide For Health Care Professionals (Brochure 34 pages)

  82. A Guide To Keeping Your Family Safe From Lead (Brochure 20 pages)

  83. Lead Hazard Management In Children's Services (Brochure 15 pages)

  84. A Guide To Dealing With Soil That Might Be Lead-Contaminated

  85. Exposure Assessment: Lead Neurotoxicity - Is the Center for Disease Control's goal to reduce lead below 10 µg/dl blood in all children younger than 72 months by 2010, good enough?


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