14 July, 2005

Worthy of Attention: Taking Stock of Reality: A Shitty Situation

Note: Worthy of Attention was a column that I used to write in the online blog Panangelium.

So the other day, I was reflecting on the fact that I'd just turned 24 years of age, and I found myself taking stock of my life up to that point. My life has really been a roller-coaster ride, rife with soap-opera like circumstances that seem unique at first glance, but upon extrospection turn out to be quite similar to the life stories heard from many different people in very different places in life. Anyway, as I sat at that park bench, watching the rest of civilized society enjoy the free live jazz concert held on the lawn in front of the Washington Monument, I realized that, like most others who went through the tribulations of youth and inexperience that I endured, the majority of my past life is nothing but shit. That's right: shit. My past experiences, though useful as a learning tool of what not to do, benefitted me in only in the most miniscule of ways; far better it would have been to have learned from the past experience of others. After all, it makes no sense to reinvent the wheel, unless you want to create a more efficient design. And since others have already had rich and fulfilling lives, why should I try to improve on their methods to success, except in those areas specific to my own (admittedly strange) personality?

One of my friends recently went through a breakup that on the surface did not seem bad at all; their relationship ended positively, cooperatively, expectedly, and without undue complication. But reading his journal entries makes me realize how much pain he is going through regardless. And that scares me.

It seems that no matter what we do, we can never quite get away with living without shit.
It seems that no matter what we do,
we can never quite get away with living
without shit.
It scares me because I suddenly realize that even an intelligent, well-rounded intellectual who goes through a breakup that is expected, mutual, and ending with a nod to continued close friendship can feel completely and utterly shitty as a result of it. Whereas I thought at first that it was just my past life that was shitty, I suddenly came to the realization that living as a human being in this crazy world of ours is very nearly a sufficient condition for experiencing shittiness at some point or another. It seems that no matter what we do, we can never quite get away with living without shit.

But just because we can't avoid the fact of nature that shit happens all around us doesn't mean we can't have a perfectly wonderful life. Shit happens, but who says it has to be a bad thing?

Apparently, Sweden does.

For years, the Swedes have been the leaders in sewage treatment. In the '60s, a strong economy and a huge environmental lobby angry at the degradation of Sweden's beautiful lakes and rivers made the country the first in the world to apply large scale advanced sewage treatment to urban areas. Their lead was soon followed by most industrialized nations, leading to the extensive sewage treatment facilities often seen today. But after only a few years, it soon became obvious that something was wrong. The more treatment that the sewage underwent, the worse the resulting sludge became. For thousands of years, the use of solid and liquid waste as fertilizer was the norm; but after Sweden started treating sewage, those farmers that used it found unexplained damage to crops, both above ground and in their root systems. Shortly afterward, Sweden banned the use of sludge on agricultural land.

As time wore on, other methods for disposing of sewage sludge were tried: ocean dumping, incineration, and landfilling. But ocean dumping was soon outlawed for the damage it did to the ecosystem, and incineration proved to simply foul up the air. Landfilling was the only viable alternative, and even then no one would accept the waste until a thinktank came up with the idea of renaming sewage sludge as 'biosolids', so as to make the concept seem 'greener'. It was unexplicable; for tens of thousands of years, the disposal of solid waste has simply been a non-issue, but after the introduction of advanced sewage treatmemnt facilities, it seemed that there was no efficient way to get rid of it all.

The problem, Sweden found out, is that of heavy metals found in sludge. The introduction of industrial chemicals found in waste products made what used to be perfectly good fertilizer into extremely toxic sludge. In October 1999, Sweden banned completely the dumping of sludge with concentrations of heavy metals beyond a certain level. But even that was not enough, as much of the populace has absolutely refused to dump sludge even if it was within the tolerance of legal levels.

But if it seems worrisome that Sweden is having such a huge problem with their sludge, then it would be beneficial to take a look at the levels of heavt minerals considered acceptable by one other country: the United States of America.

European Community19861–350–140100–15030–7550–300150–3001–1.5
The Netherlands0.83610035851400.3
United States199320750150021015014008

As can be clearly seen, the levels of tolerance for heavy minerals in the United States is well above that of Sweden, even though the Swedes are actively worried that their sludge is still too dangerous, and the American populace seems perfectly fine with their situation.

Something about this seems a little bit fucked up.

Whereas Sweden and most other countries determine their tolerance levels based on what heavy minerals are in the environment prior to sludge dumping, the United States justifies its much higher tolerance levels of heavy minerals on how each minerals performs in a risk assessment to determine what levels are acceptable. But knowledge of toxicity and environmental interactions of sludge-borne pollutants is wildly incomplete. Because of this, risk assessments can come up with very different results.

For example, both the Netherlands and the United States used the risk assessment approach, yet came up with extremely different standards. (See table above.) This is due mostly to the fact that the U.S. assessed the risk of maximum levels that humans showed resistance to over a five year period, whereas the Netherlands measured the risk of maximum levels that humans felt absolutely no adverse effects from over a fifteen year period. Also, the Netherlands measured the negative impact on important ecological life in the area of sludge-dumping, wheres the only ecological effect taken into consideration by the U.S. is the copper toxicity effect on earthworms.

European countries actively denounce the U.S.' improper standard for tolerable levels. The Report of the Independent Scientific Committee, published by an independent scientific committee in the United Kingdom, wrote in Review of the rules for sewage sludge application to agricultural land: Soil fertility aspects of potentially toxic elements (United Kingdom Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forests and Department of the Environment, MAFF Publications: London, 1993) that caution is entirely appropriate in determining sewage sludge standards, even when the evidence is still partly inconclusive, "particularly because heavy metals, unlike many other pollutants, cannot degrade [and] are retained in soils virtually indefinitely.... As a result, there is little opportunity for natural recovery from the consequences of any error in judgment." As an example of what the committee went on to recommend, the upper tolerance level of zinc in sludged soils was demanded to be reduced to a maximum of 200 mg/kg -- a standard that the U.K. immediately adopted. The recommendation came as a shock to most European countries, though, who had already set a limit of 100-150 mg/kg for zinc. The comparable U.S. standard for zinc in soils is 1400 mg/kg.

But what makes the U.S. standards so apalling is not so much their far more lenient tolerance levels for toxicity; rather, it is the continual decision to ignore results in scientific findings which go against the levels that the U.S. has already determined.

In the case of Rhizobium, non-U.S. studies show that two species (one smbiotic with clover and the other with peas and beans) are adversely affected by high zinc concentrations in soil -- although the soybean symbionts are not (Plant and Soil Science, 1999). Says Dr. McGrath in the study, "Not only does Rhizobium have a major impact on agriculture, but it is also a sentinel species, demonstrating that the heavy metals in sludge are potentially damaging to the soil ecology."

Strangely, similar studies done in the United States found completely contradictory results. The EPA published A Guide to the Biosolids Risk Assessment for the EPA Part 503 Rule (EPA/8332/B-93-005; U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Wastewater Manangement, U.S. Government Printing Office: Washington, DC, 1995) which found no adverse effects on nitrogen fixation for plants other than clover. Faced with these conflicting results, the United States EPA did not opt for caution. Instead, the agency simply did not accept experiments that showed an adverse effect on Rhizobium. Further, the National Academy of Sciences (an American institution) endorsed the EPA's findings. The NAS review considered the European evidence, but decided it was inconclusive.

Y'know, when I first read about this, it really scared the shit out of me. I mean, I've personally already reached far beyond the point where I think politicians are in the game to truly do what's best for society.  But for some reason, I always held scientists to a higher standard. Yet the fact that the EPA would issue such a blatantly immature report simply astounds me to no end. It's really scary, when you think about it.

But it doesn't have to be this way. There are ways to help the situation, even on an individual level. Like composting toilets.

The composting toilet is the answer to the problem that has plagued us since the Roman era.
The composting toilet is the answer to the problem
that has plagued us since the Roman era.
The composting toilet is the answer to the problem that has plagued us since the Roman era. It is a sanitation system that keeps toxic and human wastes separate, prevents pollution, and returns the nutrients from human waste to the soil as a fertilizer. It is safe, ecologically friendly, inexpensive, and best of all, not the least bit smelly.

In a composting toilet, human waste drops away instead of just sitting in a bowl of water, stinking up the room. Composting toilets never smell, nor fill up. Within three years, the feces turns into the best grade humus fertilizer that one can buy, via bacteria, fungi, worms and other micro and macro-organisms. Within days, the urine does the same thing, and with only a nitrification process needed to turn it into an odorless, stable, nitrogen-rich fertilizer that can easily be sold if the owner does not wish to use it himself.

Composting toilets are inexpensive mostly because they do not really have to do anything in order to work. It isn't complicated systems that kill pathogens in the tank, but rather just lots of time. In general, pathogens require their host to survive. But even those that would survive are unable in the highly competitive environment of the tank. They simply cannot compete with the composting organisms that live in the tank.

Shit happens. But it doesn't have to be a negative thing, unless you force yourself into looking at it as such. That's the real lesson to learn from all of this. Maybe we can't trust scientists. Maybe our sewage will sicken or kill most of our children. But even if we sometimes feel bogged down in shit, we shouldn't feel as though life were just out to get us. Because shit isn't necessarily a bad thing.

Yeah, maybe my past life really has been shit. But I don't care. I like where I am today, and I feel that I received valuable life experience from all the shit I was forced to go through. If you cannot yet say the same, then perhaps maybe it is time that you started.

In the meantime, enjoy your week, and, as always, be well.


  1. Kitsch is the total rejection of shit.

  2. I hope your whole article was just an excuse to say this:
    "Shit happens, but who says it has to be a bad thing?

    "Apparently, Sweden does."

    And I'm not sure if you're shitting in the second part of your article, about sewage.

  3. Comus, you're correct in both the literal and figurative senses of the word. Kitsch excludes everything from its purview which is essentially unacceptable in human existence.

    Oh, and the Sweden thing was just too good to pass up.