About 20 million acres of cropland in the United States may be contaminated by PFAS-contaminated sewage sludge that has been used as fertilizer, according to a new report.
PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a class of approximately 9,000 compounds used to make products resistant to heat, water or stains. Known as “eternal chemicals” because they don’t break down naturally, they have been linked to cancer, thyroid disruption, liver problems, birth defects, immunosuppression and Moreover.
Dozens of industries use PFAS in thousands of consumer products and often release the chemicals into the nation’s sewer system.
The analysis, conducted by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), is an attempt to understand the extent of cropland contamination from sewage sludge or biosolids. Regulators do not require sludge to be tested for PFAS or track where its spread, and public health advocates warn the practice poisons the nation’s food supply.
“We don’t know the full extent of the contamination problem created by PFAS in sludge, and we may never know, because the EPA has not made it a priority for state and local governments to track, test and report,” said Scott Faber. , director of legislative policy at the EWG.
All sewage sludge is thought to contain dangerous chemicals, and the compounds have recently been found to contaminate crops, livestock, water, and humans on farms where biosolids are prevalent.
Sludge is a by-product of the sewage treatment process which is a mixture of human excreta and industrial wastes, such as PFAS, which are discharged through industrial pipes. Disposal of sludge can be expensive, which is why the waste management industry is increasingly repackaging it as fertilizer, as the excrement is rich in plant nutrients.
EWG found that Ohio keeps the most accurate records of any state and that sludge has been applied to 5% of its farmland since 2011. Extrapolating that to the rest of the country would mean that about 20 million acres are contaminated with at least some level of PFAS. Faber called the estimate “conservative”.
EPA records show more than 19 billion pounds of sludge has been used as fertilizer since 2016 in the 41 states where the agency tracks the amount of sludge applied, but not the location. An estimated 60% of the country’s sludge is applied to cropland or other fields each year.
The consequences are evident in the only two states that routinely check sludge and farms for PFAS contamination. In Maine, PFAS-contaminated fields have already forced several farms to close. The chemicals end up in crops and livestock, and the public health toll demanded by contaminated food in Maine is unknown. Meanwhile, the state is investigating about 700 other PFAS pollution fields.
“There is no easy way around this problem,” Faber said. “We should not use PFAS-contaminated sludge to grow food and feed.”
Michigan faces a similar situation as it discovers contaminated beef and farms, and mounting evidence links sludge to public health issues and contaminated drinking water.
The health cost of using sludge outweighs the benefits, argue advocates. Many have questioned the sense of spending billions of dollars to extract sludge from water just to inject the substance into the country’s food supply, and calls to ban the practice are growing. strong.
“The EPA today could require treatment plants to test sludge for PFAS and warn farmers that it could contaminate fields, but it has declined to do so,” Faber said.