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Regulations on the use of Human Waste as a Fertilizer

posted on Thu, Aug 17 2017 8:21 am by Eastern Region

A requester recently contacted the Network to ask how states regulate the use of human waste as a fertilizer. Both federal and state law allow for the use of human waste as an agricultural fertilizer. The land application of biosolids, sewage sludge, and/or domestic septage provides considerable nutrient benefits for the soil, but also presents a range of health and environmental challenges.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has adopted regulations that create a minimum national standard regarding the use of human waste as a fertilizer. However, states may institute their own systems that can be more restrictive and extensive than the EPA’s baseline.

There are two main sources of human waste fertilizer under the federal system:

  • Sewage sludge is solid, semisolid, or liquid residue generated during the treatment of domestic sewage in a treatment works. Sewage sludge includes but is not limited to, domestic septage; scum or solids removed in primary, secondary, or advanced wastewater treatment processes; and material derived from sewage sludge…
  • Domestic septage is either liquid or solid material removed from a septic tank, cesspool, portable toilet, or type II marine sanitation device of similar treatment works that only receives domestic sewage. Domestic sewage is the waste and wastewater from humans and household operation.    

Among the properties of concern with human waste as fertilizer are:

  • Nutrient load – Nitrogen is one of the elements in fertilizer that plants require for growth. Federal standards limit use of human waste based on the amount of nitrogen required by the crops grown on the land to prevent excess nitrogen from leaching into the water system.
  • Pollutant load – Many inorganic elements can be found in both forms of human waste. The EPA has a set of restrictions related to these chemicals, including concentration limits for the waste itself and cumulative loading limits for agricultural land.
  • Pathogen reduction – Pathogens, including bacteria, viruses, and parasites, are present in human waste. These pathogens present a health risk, which federal regulations address through a series of pathogen reduction techniques.

The Network also compared the state regulatory systems of Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Texas. There are many similarities between the programs – for example, all the states have adopted the pollutant load standards put forth by the EPA. However, there are areas where states differ in regulatory language and standards. These differences are discussed in detail in a memo produced by the Network titled, “Regulation of Land Application of Biosolids in Select U.S. States”.

Network attorneys are available to answer questions on this and other public health topics at no cost to you, and can assist you in using law to advance your public health initiatives. Contact a Network Attorney in your area for more information.

The legal information and assistance provided in this document does not constitute legal advice or legal representation. For legal advice, readers should consult a lawyer in their state.