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Washington, DC, Dec. 2, 2019 — Biosolid fertilizers produced from sewage are a major source of chemical contamination of American croplands and backyard gardens, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Ultra-high levels of per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), called “Forever Chemicals” because they do not breakdown and bioaccumulate in the food chain, are found in sewage sludge repurposed as fertilizer.
Testing of commercially available biosolid-based fertilizers in 2014 detected very high levels of PFAS. One of these fertilizers comes from a public agency, the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA), whose BayState fertilizer contained roughly 34,000 parts-per-trillion of 17 different PFAS. In contrast, this is almost 500 times the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Lifetime Health Advisory limit for just two of those compounds, PFOA and PFOS. As reported in the Boston Globe today, MWRA tested the materials in March 2019 and found the fertilizer contained more than 18,000 parts per trillion of three PFAS chemicals.
PFAS in fertilizer raises public health concerns because the toxic substances –
- Migrate to both groundwater and surface waters, some of which are sources of drinking water. After a single biosolids application, PFAS can be detected in groundwater months later;
- Accumulate in crops used for consumption by both livestock and humans; and
- Risk exposing workers and consumers handling PFAS-laden fertilizers.
“These fertilizers are another open pathway for dangerous PFAS penetration of our water supply and food chain,” stated PEER Science Policy Director Kyla Bennett, a scientist and attorney formerly with EPA. “Ironically, public agencies such as the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection are working hard to stem PFAS contamination, but a sister agency, the MWRA, may be a major source of contamination through biosolid fertilizers.”
Sewage sludge is often treated for land application as fertilizer in a form referred to as biosolids.
In the U.S., millions of tons of biosolids are applied to lands each year to improve soil productivity to stimulate plant growth. Despite meeting EPA standards, these biosolids can still contain pollutants harmful to the environment and human health, as documented in a recent report by EPA’s Inspector General.
“Unfortunately, EPA lacks a regulatory handle for keeping PFAS and other hazardous but unregulated chemicals out of biosolid fertilizers sold to the public,” added Bennett. “EPA’s abdication means that states will have to fill the legal void and impose safeguards to protect our food and water.”
A new movie, entitled Dark Waters, depicts the dire public health consequences of PFAS contamination based upon an actual case.