A new study based on data from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) indicates that as much as 20 million acres of American farmland may be contaminated by polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) found in sewage sludge that is sometimes used as fertilizer.
PFAS are chemical substances that have been developed for a variety of commercial and industrial applications. They are often used to make products that are water and heat resistant and do not decompose quickly. The FDA says they are now present in soil, water, air, and in animal and human bodies.
PFAS are contaminants when found in food products and when substantial concentrations are present in people they are detrimental to normal health. As the materials are used by multiple industries, production facilities release them into sewer systems in their waste discharges.
When PFAS reach sewage sludge that is then recycled into agricultural fertilizer, they make their way into human foods of all kinds.
The non-partisan advocacy organization Environmental Working Group (EWG) performed an independent analysis to study agricultural contamination occurring from tainted sewage sludge. The group’s legislative policy director Scott Faber told reporters that it was not possible to know the full scope of PFAS contamination in sludge because the EPA has not made tracking it a priority.
Ohio reportedly has the most complete records involving the use of sewage sludge on farmland. Records obtained by EWG indicate that at least 5% of that state’s farmland has had sludge fertilization applications since 2011.
EWG indicated that it reviewed records from 41 states showing that at least 19 billion pounds of sewage sludge have been used for fertilizer since 2016. Based on the available data, EWG believes that around 20 million acres of farmland across the country might have PFAS contamination. That is about the size of the entire state of South Carolina.
In Maine, several farms have been closed by state regulators because of PFAS contamination. Around 700 agricultural fields in the state remain under observation.
Separate studies in Michigan have shown that authorities have found PFAS-contaminated beef and crops there. Other public health problems involving drinking water and PFAS have also been discovered.
Faber said that while there is “no easy way to shop around this problem,” the country should definitely not be using sewage sludge contaminated with PFAS to grow food for humans and livestock. He said that the EPA could require testing at treatment plants and warn farmers immediately of the risk of contamination, but has “refused to do so.”