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Let them eat nutri-cake: Merriam-Webster thinks our 'biosolids' don't stink
(or how the word biosolid became a dictionary term)

Harper's Magazine, Nov, 1998, by Sharon Rampton

Merriam-Webster thinks our "biosolid" don't stink

How do words make it into the dictionary? According to the preface to the 1998 edition of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, in which this definition of "biosolid" appears, editors read newspapers, books, and magazines in a continuous search for new words, spellings, and meanings. When a new word has appeared in a number of publications, over a sufficient period of time, a "definer" then makes a judgment as to whether the word warrants inclusion. Dictionary editors try to write definitions that reflect what a word means as it is actually used, says the preface, "rather than what the definer or someone else thinks it ought to mean, and they want their definitions to be accurate, clear, informative, and concise." In other words, "authoritative." We readers expect that, after all. "Biosolid" appears in Merriam-Webster's for the first time this year. How did it get there? And is its definition "accurate," "clear," and "informative"?

Merriam-Webster dates "biosolid" to 1977 based on a single occurrence of the word at a conference of paper-mill operators, a usage that has nothing to do with the word's current definition. The true origin of "biosolid" can be traced to a Name Change Task Force created by the sewage industry to improve the image of its main product, sludge. In 1990, the task force sponsored a contest to come up with a more marketable name. Rejected candidates include "all growth," "purenutri," "biolife," "bioslurp," "black gold," "geoslime," "sca-doo," "the end product," "humanure," "hu-doo," "bioresidue," "urban biomass," "powergro," "organite," and "nutri-cake." In 1991, the task force settled on "biosolids," a word chosen, in good Orwellian fashion, for its positive, reassuring connotations. The sewage industry then began a public-relations campaign to place "biosolids" in the dictionary. Merriam-Webster science editor Michael Roundy acknowledges the campaign, but he argues that "entries are not based on the mere existence of a word. They're based on common usage."

The public-relations campaign to greenwash sludge entailed using the word "biosolids" instead of "sludge" wherever possible. In 1992, the Environmental Protection Agency chipped in a $300,000 grant to "educate the public" about the wonderful qualities of sludge, part of which went to Powell Tate, a blue-chip Washington public-relations and lobbying firm. By 1998 the campaign had dropped the term "biosolids" into hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles. It also included letters to Merriam-Webster from sewage-industry representatives such as Peter Machno, who manages Seattle's sludge-to-fertilizer program. "It looks like we are making progress on getting it included in a future edition," Machno wrote in a 1994 letter to Paul Cappellano, an editor at Merriam-Webster. "I am pleased that the term sludge will not appear in the definition."

Although a sewage-industry publicist did not actually write this definition, it is everything the industry hoped for. "Organic," in its current quotidian usage, sounds wholesome, fresh, pesticide-and chemical-free. Sewage sludge, however, is far from being fully organic, even in the most technical sense, It is the by-product of both household and industrial waste, and even after "treatment" may contain thousands of pathogens and toxic chemicals, including PCBs, DDT, dioxins, and salmonella--not to mention lead, mercury, polio and hepatitis viruses, parasitic worms, asbestos, and radioactive waste. Nor is it always solid. In fact, it is often a viscous and semisolid gray jelly. And it stinks.

When sewage executives, who typically work for municipal agencies and government contractors, talk about fertilizer, they always use the phrase "beneficial use," industry jargon for spreading sludge on farms. Faced with rising sludge-disposal costs, the EPA began to advocate "beneficial use" policies in the 1970s, long before "biosolids" was invented as a euphemism. The sewage industry resisted at first, and in 1977 Robert Canham, director of the industry's Water Environment Federation (formerly known as the Federation of Sewage and Industrial Wastes Associations), criticized the EPA's enthusiasm for sludge farming, which he feared could introduce viruses into the food chain. By the early 1990s, as the industry ran out of disposal options, the WEF was actively marketing sludge to farmers as cheap fertilizer--so cheap, in fact, that it is generally sold at a loss or given away. New York City, for example, has paid over $126 million for the privilege of "fertilizing" a ranch in Sierra Blanca, Texas, with mountains (400 tons a day) of toxic sludge.

"Recovered" evokes healing, rebirth, a return to normalcy, as when one speaks of an environmentally devastated biosystem that has recovered its biodiversity. The sludge industry is trying to recover from its own environmental setbacks (the 1988 ban on ocean dumping, for example) by making the beneficial use of biosolids "non-controversial by the year 2000," as an industry strategy memo put it, saving perhaps as much as $5 billion a year in disposal costs. Thousands of city governments, along with the EPA, are thus leveraging the fiction that spreading 4 million tons of sewage sludge on farms every year is as ecologically responsible as recycling our newspapers. In 1992, the EPA rewrote its regulations for the application of "biosolids" to farmland and shifted its classification from solid waste, considered hazardous to human health, to "Class A" fertilizer. Farmers in forty-six states are using sludge on a wide variety of food crops, and last year the USDA even drafted regulations that would permit the use of sludge as fertilizer on "certified organic" foods. "Biosolids," having entered the language as well as our water and food supply, give new meaning to the phrase "full of shit."

Sheldon Rampton is the co-author, with John Stauber, of Mad Cow USA and Toxic Sludge Is Good for You, and an associate editor of PR Watch (www.prwatch.org), an investigative quarterly.

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