Sewage-contaminated vegetable garden -- help --

cecropia7(IL zone5)April 15, 2009

Hi, it's been a while since I last posted. We are living in an apartment right now with no garden space, so for the last couple of years my parents have given us a share of their garden. We do have some homemade earthboxes here which we use for tomatoes and peppers.

My parents have one neighbor with a "sewage problem." In the back of their yard and in the other neighbor's yards, the earth smells of raw sewage. When I was turning soil over to plant sugar snap peas a month ago, the stench was particularly strong. I know sewage is in the garden soil, though my dad denies it. He should call public health, but he doesn't want to cause a stir. So it appears that the sewage problem won't go away before growing season. Anyway... because of this, I want to plant only vegetables which don't have contact with the soil in their garden and put the root vegetables and lettuces into our earthboxes here at the apartment. My dad always mulches very well with grass clippings, so there isn't much danger of soil splashing up onto the hanging veggies. The main issue is that my parents have always grown a ton of cucumbers as long as I can remember, and they won't stop this year. They'll be offended if we grow or buy cukes since they will have so many to give away. We have two young children and I'd rather not give them any cucumbers, but I'm wondering whether my husband and I should even eat them.

-Is there a foolproof way to wash something like cukes to kill off any sewage/bacteria? Is there a product that will do it? Would a salt/vinegar/water solution do it?

-Do you think that we'll be safe with our vegetables suspended off the ground (thinking peppers, tomatoes, snap peas, pole beans, broccoli, possibly okra)?

-Should we avoid their garden altogether?

Thanks for any advice.

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The irony of a failed "septic" system is that it would be so much safer and more useful if the neighbors were simply composting their feces aerobically in the backyard with plenty of carbonaceous buffer.

I would be more concerned about tracking contaminated sewage-water around and into the house than eating the veggies, because it's not difficult to disinfect by washing or cooking produce but it is difficult to disinfect shoes and clothes after working in the wet ground.

    Bookmark   April 15, 2009 at 12:55PM
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Your father, or you, should call the public health department. Raw sewage causes more than a "stir", it harbors e. coli.
Don't plant vegetables, don't eat vegetables from that garden area. "Washing off" the sewage is not an option. The vegetables have been growing in sewage contaminated soil.
Have the soil tested, not only for nutrients but for foreign ingredients, next year. I do hope your parents and you get to enjoy next year's growing season. Is there a community garden near you where you could obtain a garden plot?

    Bookmark   April 15, 2009 at 12:58PM
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anney(Georgia 8)


Maybe it's time to put your foot down with your folks. I know that can be hard to do but most of us can do it if it's for our children! You can certainly frame your concern that you want what is healthy for your children and your parents. [The elderly don't do well with e. coli and other bacterial diseases, like salmonella or even botulism, all of which can live in contaminated soil.] Tell them that it's possible nothing is wrong but the smell really worries you and you can't grow or eat anything from the soil until you know it's free of contamination.

I agree that you should call the public health department and ask them to test it for bacterial and other contaminants. And your parents' yard, too, in case there's been seepage.

    Bookmark   April 15, 2009 at 1:13PM
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anney(Georgia 8)

A discreet move?

Why not take a soil sample when nobody's looking and take it for testing if you're worried and don't want to ruffle any feathers at this stage? You should be able to research how to do it on the internet (how much soil, where to collect it, etc.). Get the results and THEN have the health department do a broader-based test if there are problems.

    Bookmark   April 15, 2009 at 1:52PM
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gardenlen(s/e qld aust)

the way i see it when that sewage breaks down it will valuable nutrients to the soil, my solution is raised beds so that you have no need to work the actual soil. raised beds need no digging ever.


Here is a link that might be useful: lens garden page

    Bookmark   April 15, 2009 at 2:08PM
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Seasoned travelers to the tropical zones - not to mention residents - would dispute the notion that e.coli can't be cleansed from fresh fruit and veggies. There are various non-toxic dips that can be purchased. It's always considered safe to eat produce right after cooking, even if one eschews raw.

This "sewage" is water coming out the top of a septic system that is clogged and can no longer leach. The solids are most likely still settling to the bottom of the holding tank, or at least getting filtered out in the grass and so forth. The stink is from obnoxious anaerobic bacteria. If this sort of stuff were so deadly dangerous then the pump-out men would be dying like flies, they get covered in the stuff all the time. Most people don't realize that in many rural areas septic pump-out is kept in open septage lagoons. There are some not far from where I live, the lagoons are solid with tall weeds that transpire the contaminated water, while the gunk slowly decays at the bottom. It's been going on for decades. Septic systems are no cleaner or better than outhouses.

    Bookmark   April 15, 2009 at 3:11PM
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anney(Georgia 8)

pnbrown Septic systems are no cleaner or better than outhouses.

That may be, but most of us don't and wouldn't garden with the runoff from outhouses either. The objections are more than olfactory. If it was all that inconsequential, we'd handle human waste disposal and field fertilization like the Chinese! Think of all the food-related diseases that have affected Americans during, say, the past five years purely from lack of sanitation. Last I heard, it was peanut butter.

I just wouldn't want my children splashing around in septic tank ooze or eating food that was watered with it.

    Bookmark   April 15, 2009 at 4:05PM
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I also agree about washing the sewage off - I watched a thing on 60 minutes when there was an E. Coli scare in our california spinach farmr - and labritory studies shown when washed whith BLEACH water - E. Coli was reduced only a small amount! I understand that sewage affiliated occupationalist ( "pump out men") probably do get exposed - however I would hope they would be trained enough to know not to put their fingers in there mouth while on the job!

Unless cooking the food - dont bother is my advise!

    Bookmark   April 15, 2009 at 4:44PM
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Anney, it seems that you imagine that many people in China die or are sickened from e.coli contamination due to using human waste as fertilizer. I strongly suspect that is not the case. Not to mention that other regions use that sensible practice as well.

You are quite right though, the thing to avoid in any treatment of manure or human feces is run-off. The very best way, both in terms of avoiding contaminating water sources and in conserving water to begin with, is to not mix feces with water. Bingo! It's so simple, yet so difficult to achieve due to the unwarranted "yuck" syndrome that civilized people have with their own dross.

    Bookmark   April 15, 2009 at 6:51PM
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anney(Georgia 8)


FWIW, yes, the use of nightsoil in China HAS been the cause of many disease outbreaks (worse than e. coli ?), maybe because of the mixture with water for crops that you mention. In the countryside, where "night soil" has always been collected and applied to the fields as fertilizer, it was a major source of disease. Since the 1950s, rudimentary treatments such as storage in pits, composting, and mixture with chemicals have been implemented.

As a result of preventive efforts, such epidemic diseases as cholera, plague, typhoid, and scarlet fever have almost been eradicated. The mass mobilization approach proved particularly successful in the fight against syphilis, which was reportedly eliminated by the 1960s. The incidence of other infectious and parasitic diseases was reduced and controlled. Relaxation of certain sanitation and antiepidemic programs since the 1960s, however, may have resulted in some increased incidence of disease. In the early 1980s, continuing deficiencies in human-waste treatment were indicated by the persistence of such diseases as hookworm and schistosomiasis. Tuberculosis, a major health hazard in 1949, remained a problem to some extent in the 1980s, as did hepatitis, malaria, and dysentery.

Here is a link that might be useful: HealthCare in China

    Bookmark   April 15, 2009 at 7:05PM
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If someone is digging and it's smelly it's most likely not going to correct itself.

That's not using human waste as fertilizer...that's uncomposted, raw, unsafe sewage that will most likely continuously "flow" through the soil profile. There's not much fertile about fact it's probably acidic and anaerobic in nature.

    Bookmark   April 15, 2009 at 7:12PM
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We've been in the business of installing and repairing residential sewage disposal systems for over 40 years. My best advice to anybody in the OP's position is to consider how much it could possibly cost if you eat the vegetables grown on a failing septic system. There are reasons why we in the US are required to dispose of our household waste water underground or into a public treatment plant and the presence of dangerous pathogens in the waste stream is the chief reason. Eating produce grown in this waste is opening you, your children, and your parents (and anybody else they share their "bounty" with) to the risk of falling ill, ill enough to need hospitalization, or possibly dying. Yes, there are people worldwide who don't follow sensible guidelines in this regard, and as has been noted, many of them do become ill.

How much is your health and the health of your family worth? How much does it cost to buy vegetables at the local produce stand or supermarket? How much would a trip to the hospital cost? Do you have the backbone it takes to stand up to somebody you love who is doing something very dangerous?

Insisting that this serious health hazard is reported to the local health district is the best course for you or your parents. This situation is endangering the whole community. Dogs love sewage. Flies and mosquitoes love it. Beautiful butterflies love it. These critters can pass along the diseases to anything they lick, land on, or walk on. As was mentioned earlier, tracking the sewage contaminated soil into the home is a bad idea, too.

I wish you the very best, cecropia. None of your choices are easy ones. Stay healthy.

Rant over.


    Bookmark   April 15, 2009 at 11:03PM
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Sandy, since you are an industry pro, I'd be interested in your opinion: do you agree with the basic premise of modern treatment of human feces on a residential scale? That is, to mix it with fresh water and release that water into the sub-soil?

I think it's worth pondering the first part of the treatment, the mixing with fresh water. Why do we do that? Is it because it's the only or best way to make human feces safe for release into out habitats? Since immersing any OM in water can only cause anaerobic breakdown, which is highly inefficient, then it's clearly not the best way. In fact, it's the worst way. So why? If we are being honest, there is only one answer: because most of us are scared of poop. The water is merely an effective and convenient way of getting it out of the house - once it's out, the water is a huge liability. It would make much more sense for the releaser to go out of the house instead, or to use a portable container, and to mix the feces with a carbonaceous buffer instead of water. Proper mixing and proper containment - both very easy to achieve when there is not contaminated water to deal with - will end the story, on-site.

Note that composting toilets are legal in every state.

    Bookmark   April 16, 2009 at 7:01AM
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The Bronx Zoo has composting toilets in every restroom. They look the same as regular toilets, but when you flush instead of a swish of water the bowl fills with foam. That was the first time I ever saw or heard of such a thing. What a wonderful idea.

    Bookmark   April 16, 2009 at 8:29AM
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Pnbrown, I just attended a class yesterday on one of the newer, so called "alternative" sewage disposal systems that uses a packed bed filter prior to discharging the effluent into the soil. A study was done in VA on these systems. Borings were taken from the soil at 12" below the dispersal field and the soil and remainder water tested for contamination. All tests came back negative for effluent contamination and the water was rated as potable. The filtration and 12" of soil had essentially cleaned up the waste water to the point it was drinkable. (Not sure I would want to except in an emergency, but you get the point.) In systems without this filtration process, the soil is expected to clean up the effluent within 18" of the bottom of the discharge trenches. The soil type makes a difference, sandy soils taking more area to do this than clay or loam.

One thing that makes the packed bed filters more efficient is the introduction of air into the process. That means aerobic microbes are working on the waste prior to it being discharged into the ground. In some areas, each drain line is required to have a vent at the end to help create an aerobic environment but that's not the case in VA. These new systems are completely free from the traditional sewage odor. If you open up the treatment unit, there is a faint musty odor but no offensive aromas of sewage. The first one I saw was a commercial system with a 5000 gallon chamber that received the water after the filter units and contained a large pump to transfer the water to a leachbed area. When the top of this pump chamber was opened, the water was as clear as what comes from our faucet. Since it had not been further treated by the soil microbes it was not potable (95-98% pure, not quite good enough to drink) but it had no odor and looked crystal clear. Amazing use of eons old processes in modern technology.

The soil is a wonderful decontamination machine. The microherd are especially adapted to digesting and reducing to a nontoxic state the waste from our living organisms, both plant and animal. This is why spring water is considered (in most cases) to be potable. It may have passed through some very contaminated areas but by passing through the soil it is cleaned.

All of that said, the key in a septic system is that it is functioning properly and the microbes present have not been killed by our prolific use of cleaners and antibacterial products. Even flushing leftover antibiotics down the toilet or having someone in the household using strong medication for such ailments as cancer can cause a serious decline in the necessary bacteria to keep the system in good working order. But when sewage is surfacing over the drainfield, it is a definite sign that something is wrong in the system and the dangerous pathogens are most likely present in the top layers and surface of the soil. In other words, the process that eventually kills off or neutralizes the bacteria and viruses that make us ill has failed.

Composting toilets are a good way to go in some circumstances. It's very likely that some time in the future, when potable water is more scarce than it is today, we may be required to use them instead of flushing several gallons of water every time we need to run to the bathroom. The alternative will probably be recycling of the waste stream in each home by removing solids that accumulate and creating biosolids for field application and purifying the water to the point it is again potable. In some states it is now legal to use the recycled water for such activities as laundry, showers, and flushing more waste. I don't know of any that consider it fit for human consumption, at least not yet.

What system of getting rid of our waste is best? That's a great debate. Anything that works to protect the public health is a good thing when you consider the open sewers on the side of the streets in many parts of the world. There are some ways that are more efficient and less aesthetically offensive than others but anything from the traditional outhouse (properly limed, of course) to public sewer systems (with no storm water overflow into our public waterways) will work. There is no "perfect" way. All have maintenance considerations that must be followed to keep them working properly. It's when problems are ignored that they become a public health hazard.

I hope this answered some of your questions, pnbrown. And apologies to cecropia for hijacking the thread!


    Bookmark   April 16, 2009 at 10:14AM
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jessicavanderhoff(7 Md)

This discussion really made me think! Would it be possible for her to add certain bacteria to the soil in order to digest the waste? What are the factors influencing whether a system goes anaerobic or aerobic? Is it just the amount of air? What are the factors determining whether a pile of human waste (or food scraps or manure or whatever) rot or turn into compost? I have read a lot, but don't really understand why when I mix food scraps and sawdust I get a rotten mess instead of compost. Does a compost pile have to be big? If so, why?

    Bookmark   April 16, 2009 at 12:42PM
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Jessica, I've included a link to the Gardenweb FAQ on composting. Your mix of food scraps and sawdust may be staying too wet and that will lead to an anaerobic condition which is stinky. It will all eventually lead back to compost but the process can be much less offensive if done with just a bit of care.

There is no material available that I know of to use on the soil to make the natural bacteria work any faster. Eventually, with time and elimination of the source of sewage, the soil will no longer be contaminated and will be as safe as any other soil.

The typical sewage disposal system with just a holding/settling tank and a leachfield is an anaerobic system and does work, although it is a slower and stinky process. No appreciable amount of air reaches the waste stream and therefore the aerobic bugs are not present. Introduction of air (and there are several ways to do that) creates the aerobic system which is faster and more efficient at "purifying" the sewage.


Here is a link that might be useful: A brief intro to composting

    Bookmark   April 16, 2009 at 2:11PM
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lisazone6_ma(z6 MA)

This thread reminded me of some family home movies one of my relatives took in Italy sometime in the early 20s. Someone transfered it onto video so we were all watching it one afternoon (this was a few years back!). It shows woman carring buckets on either side of a pole across their shoulders, walking around the vegetable garden and ladling a dark liquid out of the buckets and tossing it onto the plants - when I asked what they were doing, my uncle informed me they had dipped the buckets in the collection pit from the outhouses, and that's what the liquid was!!

I've learned more about sewage in this one thread than I knew in my entire life! It's really interesting, I'm not kidding!

Best of luck with your problem cecropia!! Hope you find a solution so no one falls ill!! Having samples checked sounds like a great idea. The elderly and children seem to be especially susceptible to these buggies so I would be cautious if I were you. Good luck!


    Bookmark   April 16, 2009 at 2:16PM
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Sandy, thanks for an excellent response. That's the first I've heard of underground aerobic systems and they sound like a big leap forward. I'm a building contractor so I see a lot of title 5 (MA state code) systems being built. They are expensive and built to fail unless regularly pumped, like all anaerobic systems.

My particular motivation is to think of ways to get human waste safely usable as fertilizer for food production that the average person will use (such as one's wife and daughters, for instance). As you say, at some point potable water will not be so value-less, already it is dear in many places. At the same time the need for crop fertilizer will multiply dramatically. Underground systems won't be convenient for that purpose. An above-ground aerobic catchment, secure but easily accessed is required. The foam toilets are pretty interesting, though probably expensive. Incineration is expensive.

A woman who lives in my area has developed a simple system where a typical flush toilet dumps into a box filled with leaves. The water filters through the leaves and drains out the bottom, leaving the solids behind, and then travels through small pools filled with plants. The leaves are removed frequently to a compost pile. This is an interesting hybrid concept that could be easily tacked onto existing hardware. I may implement it in my house, even though the state has been harassing her for a couple decades.

    Bookmark   April 16, 2009 at 4:43PM
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It is quite possible to compost human waste and have a product safe for use in vegetable gardens. Have you researched biosolids yet? Even VA will allow it to be used on some crops by commercial operations but there are some rigid guidelines about waiting periods between application and harvesting. The danger comes in when people at any point in the process get careless, greedy, or lazy. Improper composting, neglect in adequate incorporation of the material into the soil, ignoring the waiting periods, all of these create potential for disaster.

Remember that this is different from growing veggies in soil over a failing septic system. Once the beneficial microbes have had a chance to do their thing, even sewage can be considered safe. But raw or partially treated seweage is another matter entirely.

I have read that feces eliminated during space flight is not recycled on board. It is compressed and brought back to earth. I don't know what happens to it then but even NASA hasn't come up with an adequate way to recycle it. Of course, they aren't exactly growing vegetable gardens on the space station, either, so compost would not be a useful product. Just an interesting aside to this whole "wasteful" subject!


    Bookmark   April 16, 2009 at 8:22PM
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I forgot to ask, what are Title 5 systems in MA? Can you give me some examples of them? Are they proprietary or pre-engineered systems or something built from "scratch?"

    Bookmark   April 16, 2009 at 8:27PM
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I'm not sure what reason your father does not want to report your neighbors, but if its a financial thing please be aware that there are grants and low cost loans through the USDA and other sources to help homeowners pay for septic repairs. Public Health should be able to help point them in the right direction.

    Bookmark   April 16, 2009 at 9:08PM
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Having personally experienced amoebic dysentery twice, I would not hesitate to talk to the neighbors about the problem, and then report them if they did not resolve it in a reasonable amount of time.

There's raw and fresh human feces in their vegetable patch - why is this even a question? Take action for them if they won't protect themselves from harm.

    Bookmark   April 16, 2009 at 9:28PM
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Sandy, not sure how title 5 differs from other states' code; not much, probably. My opinion is that water-borne systems are driven by tradition rather than necessity or best science. NASA can't figure out how to treat solid crap? Seems like we are paying too much for those brilliant minds, in that case. In fact, maybe abandoning inter-planetary fantasy boondoggles for figuring out effective ways of using human waste in food production and thereby saving billions from malnourishment here on "spaceship" earth would be a better plan......

I do know how to compost and use human effluent safely, have been doing so for years, but I am interested in extending the practice beyond one eccentric individual to an acceptable mainstream reality.

    Bookmark   April 18, 2009 at 9:35AM
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jessicavanderhoff(7 Md)

Thank you for the reference Sandy. I read it, and I don't believe it was too wet-- it was damp, but not soggy. I am going to post over on the composting forum and see if anyone can help me some more.

I have really enjoyed reading this thread.

    Bookmark   April 19, 2009 at 6:12PM
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For those of you reading this thread and not completely closed-minded to my ideas expressed, go to youtube and search "humanure". You will find some very informative videos by the j.jenkins of the "humanure handbook".

Diseases caused by human-borne pathogens are a result of various factors: climate, population density, ignorance, individual laziness - not necessarily in that order. Disease is not an automatic outcome of not burying human effluent deep in the ground.

    Bookmark   April 20, 2009 at 8:21AM
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My daughter called me this evening about her garden. Her peas are 7' tall and loaded with peas; her tomato plants are 4'tall and nearly as wide and loaded with tomatoes.

The owner of the place just informed her the reason her garden is so lush is because she planted it over the septic tank. So she called me to ask if it will be safe to eat the foods she has planted? There is no leakage, no smell or odors; infact she had no idea it was even there until now. The question is: "Is it safe for her family to eat the foods in her garden?"

    Bookmark   June 22, 2009 at 1:40AM
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potterhead2(z5b NY)

Is the garden over the tank itself or over the leach field?

    Bookmark   June 22, 2009 at 10:43AM
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gardenlen(s/e qld aust)

g'day deeter,

i'd be eating the produce, all the plants are doing is making use of the available nutrients in the leech field, and turning that into good produce top side. wouldn't suggest growing root crops there as then you may need to take extra precautions of washing and cooking properly to be sure.


Here is a link that might be useful: lens garden page

    Bookmark   June 22, 2009 at 3:22PM
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this thread is unreal, hep c, c. diff, e. coli are just a few of the nasties that I wouldnt want to be growing tomatoes on.

Plus, its not even their problem, but the neighbors. They should be reported to the health department and made sure to see a new system installed correctly.

    Bookmark   June 22, 2009 at 10:03PM
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cecropia7(IL zone5)

Sorry, I should have updated this thread...

A couple of weeks after posting I sent samples from my parents' garden and yard to be tested for fecal coliform counts and both samples tested normal. We are now enjoying a bumper crop of snap peas and more veggies will be ready soon. I think it was worth the money to be sure that the soil was safe. Thanks for all the replies.

    Bookmark   June 22, 2009 at 11:21PM
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Ecoli can be taken up into the plant through the roots.
I would avoid the veggies at all costs.

    Bookmark   June 22, 2009 at 11:37PM
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