What You Should Know About Biosolids Critics

To deal effectively with criticism of biosolids, it’s essential to be well-informed about the facts and the people behind the claims.

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From time to time you probably receive email warnings about various computer viruses. They are almost always hoaxes, and they tend to have one thing in common: a statement that the virus “was discussed just this morning at Microsoft” or “has raised serious concern among engineers at Symantec.”

Most likely you’ve also seen stories about “miracle” diets. One that comes to mind is the Mayo Clinic cabbage soup diet.

Do you see a trend here? The purveyors of these scams drop the names of highly recognized and reputable organizations. In reality, Mayo Clinic has nothing at all to do with the cabbage soup diet, and the “viruses” in question have never been mentioned at Microsoft or Symantec — because they don’t exist.

Who says so?

The point is that when considering information about any topic, it’s essential to consider the source. That’s abundantly true in the case of biosolids. Those who oppose beneficial uses like composting and land application often cite sources connected with major universities or government agencies.

Sometimes the information is real but has been completely removed from its context. Other times the author of an article or paper has cherry-picked data, including only negatives about biosolids and omitting anything positive.

It’s also true that some people who work for (or once worked for) prestigious universities or government departments who speak against biosolids have limited or no scientific credentials, or do have such credentials but also have anti-biosolids agendas.  

One biosolids critic lacking credentials (or in this case with misleading credentials) is Caroline Snyder, quoted by a biosolids opponent in a comment on a recent TPO article published on the magazine’s website (www.tpomag.com). She is advertised as having a Harvard Ph.D., and that in itself is true. But it turns out that her doctoral degree is in Germanic languages and literature; she is not a scientist and has done no research of her own on biosolids.

Horror stories

Questionable sources aside, there are also questionable stories about the supposed horror biosolids have caused. One such story involves a farm in Georgia where a prize-winning dairy herd was wiped out, allegedly because the cows ate forage grown on land that had been fertilized with biosolids. A judge actually awarded damages to this farmer and another.

Leave aside that the biosolids program in question was far from ideally managed. Also leave aside that reputable researchers found the science behind the farmer’s claims at best highly questionable. Simply consider the thousands of farms on which biosolids are applied, and have been applied for years, with highly beneficial results. If biosolids are so harmful, why were there problems on only this farm? Does it not seem likely that something else was at work?

The trouble is that most people are not steeped in science and are deeply (and rightly) concerned for their families’ health. Many tend to take claims about the dangers of biosolids at face value, regardless of their sources and the science (or lack of) behind them. That can make things difficult even for extremely well-managed and highly reputable programs.

What’s to be done?

So, what happens if your biosolids program comes under attack? What should you do? How can you prepare for that possibility? A few basics come to mind. First and foremost, run an exemplary program, one that does more than just what the law requires. Second, line up beneficiaries of your product to talk on your behalf. These may be farmers, landscapers, golf course owners or even homeowners who use Class A materials on their own gardens.

Third, study up on what critics say about biosolids and be ready to present the counter-argument. Know in detail what to say when, for example, someone mentions the Georgia dairy farm case or asks why Whole Foods won’t sell produce grown with biosolids.

Fourth and finally, resist the temptation to dismiss critics as screwballs or crazies. Those who oppose biosolids are mainly, at heart, parents who want to protect their kids, or just people who want a clean environment and a safe food supply. Naturally, you want those things, too. So address people with empathy.

One good technique is the “feel, felt, found” progression. In essence, it says that when someone raises a concern, you respond by saying, “I can appreciate how you feel. I have felt that way myself at times. But when I looked at the issue carefully, here is what I found …” The technique isn’t always appropriate, but in the right situation it can help put a person at ease.

Finally, when it comes to empathy, remember this quotation, attributed rightly or wrongly to a great many people, but no less true for its suspect origins: People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.


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