Chicago’s sewage district fails to warn gardeners free sludge contains toxic forever chemicals

CHICAGO — Bags of the earthy muck are labeled organic or natural. Sometimes it is billed as exceptional quality compost. Industry held a nationwide contest years ago and

decided to call it biosolids, a euphemism that beat out black gold, geoslime and humanure. No matter how it is described, the humuslike material distributed to gardeners,

neighborhood groups and landscapers by the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District is still sewage sludge — a byproduct of human excrement and industrial waste from Chicago and

the Cook County suburbs. Gardeners are encouraged to grow vegetables and leafy greens in the sludge-based compost. District officials promote the truckloads they donate to

community gardens in low-income, predominantly Black neighborhoods and the piles they leave outside sewage treatment plants for anyone to shovel into buckets or pickup beds.

Those same officials have repeatedly failed to tell the public what they’ve known for more than a decade: Every scoop of sludge is contaminated with toxic forever chemicals

linked to cancer and other maladies, a Chicago Tribune investigation has found. Forever chemicals, also known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances or PFAS, have been

widely used for decades in firefighting foam and to make products such as nonstick cookware, stain-repellent carpets, waterproof jackets and fast-food wrappers that repel oil and

grease. Conventional sewage treatment concentrates the chemicals in sludge, studies show. While composting with wood chips helps reduce pathogens and odors, the biological

process increases PFAS levels in the product distributed to gardeners.