By Lynn Zanardi Blevins
Are you compostable? I don’t mean the whole of you, but the pieces and parts you shed as part of normal body functioning. For example, my hair clippings go directly into the garden and nail trimmings are deposited into the kitchen compost crock. Urinating on a compost (usually reserved for men or highly enthusiastic female composters) is a great boost for a carbon-rich pile in need of nitrogen. A facial tissue used to stop a bloody nose? Sure, an active compost pile will happily accept all of these items (just be sure it is your own compost).
A general rule of thumb is that all things previously alive or from living organisms can be composted. Some things (bone, wool, feathers) take longer than others (cucumber peels, manure, grass clippings), but if you are patient they will all turn to black gold in time. Following that rule, excluding pacemakers, dental fillings, hip replacements, and the like, all of the parts of us will rot.
We might not be pure enough for the compost though. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals provides bio-monitoring data reflecting the U.S. population’s exposure to 151 environmental chemicals. These chemicals or their metabolites are measured in urine and blood from a sample of U.S. citizens. Among the many findings are widespread exposures to some industrial chemicals.
Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (BDEs) are fire retardants used in manufactured products, mainly home furnishings and electronics that accumulate in fat tissue. One type, BDE-47, was found in the blood of nearly all study participants.
Bisphenol A (BPA) is a component of epoxy resins (used in the lining of food containers and dental sealants) and polycarbonate plastics (including food containers and toys) with possible reproductive toxicity. CDC found BPA in more than 90 percent of urine samples.
Perfluorochemicals (PFCs), used in the manufacture of a variety of products including clothing, food packaging, and non-stick coatings on cookware, were found in most study participants.
Tricosan, a chemical with antibacterial properties used in hand sanitizers, personal-care products, detergents and clothing, was found in the urine of nearly 75 percent of study participants. Although the levels found in urine would not be enough to bring your compost pile to a screeching halt, do you really want to offend your friendly composting bacteria like that?
I would never knowingly put anything containing these industrial chemicals in a compost that would be used for food. But if I am similar to the study participants as a whole, then my own pieces and parts don’t meet my own standards for compostability (especially if I am certified organic).
Hmmm, so where do I put those nail clippings after all?
Lynn Zanardi Blevins, M.D., M.P.H., is a medical epidemiologist and clinical assistant professor of medicine at the University of Vermont. She is also teaches Public Health at UVM.