More and more cities and townships are initiating municipal composting programs. They do this in order to reduce the amount of organic materials that is going to landfills. Many of the cities and townships do the composting themselves, while others sell it to commercial operators who compost the waste and resell it. In many areas, restaurants are selling their food waste to commercial compost operators as well.

Let's take a moment and think about what occurs in our own neighborhoods. While you might maintain a chemical free property how about your neighbors? Do they use chemicals or hire a lawn service that applies chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides? Do they send their grass clipping to municipal compost sites? In many cities and townships organic waste materials MUST be separated from normal trash and failing to do so can result in a written violation; the local government can take you to court for failing to comply.

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Residue from lawn chemicals can remain in compost processed by municipalities for long periods of time. I checked with several communities near me and have been told there is no testing done whatsoever for chemical residue, before the compost is distributed to residents.

Do you know how much of this chemical residue would be absorbed by plants if the compost were to be applied to a vegetable garden? I know I sure wouldn't want to risk it, would you?

Mother Jones News recently reported "California regulators traced residues of dichlorophenyl-dichloroethylene, a breakdown product of DDT, and bifenthrin, an ant killer, to compost in pots of organic wheatgrass in Northern California grocery stores (the levels were not high enough to make anyone sick). DDT was banned for most uses in the early 1970s and bifenthrin is classified as a possible human carcinogen and is highly toxic to fish. Levels may not be high enough to make anyone sick but I don't believe that any of us want chemicals in our food, no matter what the levels might be.

The USDA and EPA have taken a hands-off policy as far as testing and establishing regulations for commercial compost.

The composting of food waste from restaurants tends to concern me also. If no testing is done on finished compost how are we to know if someone with a communicable disease has left bacteria or a virus on the food scraps? How do we know whether or not the bacteria or virus survived the composting process? How are we to know whether or not the bacterial or virus could be absorbed by plant material in our vegetable gardens? We don't know because no one tests commercial compost.

According to the International Association of Certified Home Inspectors several diseases can be contracted through improperly processed compost. Here's an excerpt from an article on thier site:

  • Aspergillosis is a fungal infection of the lungs that is caused after the inhalation of a fungus commonly found in rotting plant matter. While normally not life-threatening, aspergillosis can be extremely dangerous if enough spores are inhaled. The disease killed a 47-year-old British man after he was engulfed in clouds of dust from the compost he had intended to use in his garden.
  • The symptoms of Farmer's Lung resemble pneumonia, and may result from respiratory exposure to certain fungal and bacterial pathogens present in rotting organic materials, such as mushrooms, hay and sugar cane. Beware of dusty white patches, as they are a sign that dangerous spores are present. Farmer's Lung can usually be treated with antibiotics.
  • Histoplasmosis is caused by fungus that grows in guano and bird droppings. Healthy immune systems can usually fight off histoplasmosis, although infections can become serious if large amounts of the toxin are inhaled, or if the infected person has a weakened immune system.
  • Legionnaire's Disease is a respiratory infection that's caused by the inhalation of L. Longbeachae.
  • Paronychia is a local infection that occurs in the tissue around the fingernails and toenails. Prolonged moisture and the abrasive effects of soil can create openings in the skin that allow the infection to occur, producing pain and throbbing.

What can the average gardener do to ensure that the compost they place on their own gardens is safe?

Make your own. If you make your own compost you will know exactly what goes in and the finished product is safe.Image You can be as basic or elaborate a

s you wish. Make a bin using recycled pallets and poultry netting (chicken wire). Concrete blocks are also often used to contain compost. There are many commercial compost bins available from garden centers or from mail order suppliers.

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If you do buy commercial compost look for the "OMRI" logo. This is the Organic Materials Review Institute, an international nonprofit organization that determines which products are allowed for use in organic production and processing. OMRI Listed® products are allowed for use in certified organic operations under the USDA National Organic Program.

I don't want anyone to get the idea that I am anti-compost - it is a valuable asset to soil conditioning. Just make sure that the compost you apply to your gardens is safe.

References:Mother Jones News
International Association of Certified Home Inspectors
The Organic Materials Review Institute