Sludge the Poor

ABC news reports yesterday indicate the EPA and various research initiatives did not follow up on studies initiated to show industrial and human waste could be beneficial in reducing lead poisoning in low-income households.  Federal money in East Saint Louis and Baltimore started programs in which several low-income households were given food stamps in return for allowing sludge to be tilled into their yards and then replanted with grass.  The minerals in the sludge were then thought to bind to lead ingested by children and prevent lead poisoning.  This way, when kids in the neighborhood eat the dirt, they have less risk of lead poisoning.  In addition, researchers did not disclose that the sludge could be potentially dangerous.  As one researcher says, ‘composting, of course, kills pathogens’.  Hm.  Must be one of those facts known only to those in the realm of science.

The thing that really gets me though, is the sham-science of these supposed ‘studies’.  The way the scientific method is supposed to work involves the testing of a hypothesis.  Testing the hypothesis that phosphate and iron in sludge can bond to lead and other dangerous chemicals is one thing, but it’s the kind of hypothesis that can most readily be tested in a lab.  Testing whether or not the sludge makes the ground less dangerous generally to humans in particular requires entirely different tests, possibly the consumption of sludge and lead poisoned dirt combinations on lab rats or other animals, before any results are released.  The idea that results were released saying that the sludge made the eating the dirt safe for children, when no studies were done on the actual effect of ingesting the dirt, and absolutely no part of the survey took participant’s health into account either before, during, or after the study, is ridiculous.  We might as well go back to quack docs and superstition if what science gives us is such shoddy research.  I mean seriously – have you had your magical sludge tonic yet today?

I can accept that research is somewhat politically and somewhat popularly motivated.  I can accept that research is sometimes skewed by personal interest or ambition.  What I refuse to accept is research like this that so intensely disregards both the moral intent and basic methods of science, namely, to ameliorate the condition and understanding of modern man through the application of the scientific method.


1 Comment

  1. April 15, 2008 at 5:02 pm

    I encourage you to read the original study (which I would be happy to send you if you email me). I think the ABC/AP journalists are taking advantage of American scientific illiteracy and our country’s unfortunate history of screwing over the poor and minorities to push a sensationalist piece that seems to bear little on reality. I actually read the original article (and blogged about it over at They compost and then pasteurize (which is how we make milk safe to drink) the stuff they put on lawns (which is actually a compost fertilizer and not “sludge”, as the article claims), and measure the amount of toxic chemicals (actually: trace amounts of lead, zinc, and other substances found naturally in soil) in the compost fertilizer (which turns out to be extremely below the EPA’s safe limits, and also negligible compared to what was already in the soil).

    One reason I wish more journals were open-access is that the media couldn’t exploit people who don’t have access to the original research and make false claims.

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