In trying to address pollutants in biosolids that are spread over millions of acres of farmland, the EPA and its advisors seem unprepared to recognize the scale of the threat posed by PFAS contamination. Action Alert!
By now, many of us are aware of the crisis of per- and polyfluorinated substances (or PFAS) “forever” chemical contamination of our food, air, water, and consumer products. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is acutely aware of the problem and seems keen to convince Americans it is doing everything in its power to protect us from the harms of PFAS. Sadly, as we’ve seen time and again, the EPA’s actions do not match its rhetoric. We need to demand more of our lawmakers and regulators.
The newest outrage comes as the EPA formulates a plan to address contaminants in “biosolids”— a euphemism for sewage sludge, municipal sewage that has been processed to obtain clean water, leaving behind a concentrated goop full of contaminants that its producers feel is good food for the plants we eat. Note that biosolids used to be dumped in the ocean before this practice was banned in 1988 because it was too toxic. The EPA’s framework is meant to help the agency prioritize the chemical contaminants on which to focus its efforts. The EPA’s Scientific Advisory Board (SAB) reviewed the EPA’s plan and submitted feedback.
In its report, the SAB states its concern that the EPA’s prioritization process may be skewed by data “overly influenced by [PFAS] concentrations found only in industrial biosolids/waste-streams” because these sources have “atypical levels of PFAS” compared to municipal biosolids.
Further along in the report, the SAB asks the EPA if its biosolid chemical concentration figures are current, citing PFAS as an example: “biosolid PFAS concentrations may be lower now versus twenty years ago, due to [PFOS] and [PFOA] being phased out of production in the early 2000s.”
The implication of these critiques is that the EPA’s approach for prioritizing which chemicals to target in making sure that biosolids are safe will overstate the danger of PFAS chemicals. Scientists around the globe are sounding the alarm about the extensive contamination of our world with these dangerous chemicals, but the “experts” responsible for informing the EPA’s policies are concerned that the agency might focus too much effort on them…?
First, the far more relevant concern is one we pointed out in a recent article: in setting safe limits for environmental contaminants like PFAS, regulators do not take into account the total chemical load of what we’ve being exposed to from all sources each day. If we took all sources of PFAS exposure into account (air, water, food, textiles, etc.) we would want far stronger safety limits in each instance because we’re being exposed in multiple ways. Let’s also remember that PFAS accumulate in the body and can persist for years. The problem is certainly not that the EPA is being too aggressive in banning or restricting PFAS, or any other chemicals for that matter. Of the tens of thousands of chemicals on the market, the EPA has acted only a handful of times to restrict or ban a substance.
The second concern pointed out by the SAB is especially ridiculous. Yes, a few PFAS have been phased out of production, but there are thousands of these chemicals. Concentrations of some long-chain PFAS may be decreasing in wastewater used to make biosolids, but concentrations of short-chain PFAS are increasing. For vast numbers of these thousands of PFAS, we have very little data on how long they persist, whether they bioaccumulate and at what rate, or what their long-term health impact is. We should be concerned—alarmingly so—that current estimates are understating the problem, not overstating it!
We know that biosolids are contaminated extensively with PFAS; some estimate that as many as 5 percent of all crop fields could be using biosolids contaminated with PFAS. The consequences are very real. One Maine family found out that, before they bought their land, previous owners had fertilized using biosolids for years; the water they now drink contains 400 times more PFAS than what the state said was safe.
Once PFAS-contaminated biosolids are applied as fertilizer, the chemicals build up in the soil and get picked up and accumulate in food crops, feed crops like corn and hay, and the animals that eat those crops. PFAS from biosolids also readily find their way into irrigation water. This may have been a contributory factor in our own findings, discussed in our PFAS in kale pilot study, that kale samples from around the country are contaminated with PFAS.
An ever weaker position on broad scale restriction of PFAS seems to be part of a global trend, with recent suggestions that the European Union has succumbed to pressure from the chemical industry and is now preparing to U-turn on its planned near-total ban on PFAS in 2026.
The EPA’s position on PFAS in biosolids is another indication that the federal government, and those informing government policies, are not attacking the issue of PFAS contamination with the required level of urgency. We must continue to urge our lawmakers to pursue a complete ban on PFAS.
Action Alert! Write to Congress and the EPA, telling them to ban PFAS. Please send your message immediately.