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“A greater danger to human health than regulators previously thought…”
This is the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) recent warning, as reported by the Washington Post, about a group of synthetic substances commonly called "forever chemicals."1 The technical name is per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which manufacturers have used since the 1950s to create heat-, water-, grease-, and stain-resistant products.2 3 The majority of PFAS don’t degrade, accumulating in the environment over time, and it’s estimated that they’re found in the blood of most humans, although levels vary greatly depending on lifestyle factors, geographical location, and work exposure.4 5 6 7 Over the years, they have been linked to congenital disabilities, thyroid issues, immunosuppression, cancer, and more.8 9 10 Despite these alarming health risks, the EPA has done little to regulate PFAS since their debut seven decades ago.11 12
However, the EPA recently issued new interim health advisories for PFOA and PFOS, two of the most common “forever chemicals,” because current evidence suggests exposure to these substances can compromise the immune and cardiovascular systems at levels as low as 0.004 and 0.02 parts per trillion, respectively.13 These concentrations are so microscopic that they're hard to detect with current technology, and they're a stunning reduction from the last health advisory for the same chemicals, set at 70 parts per trillion in 2016.14 Although PFOA and PFOS are retired from U.S. manufacturing, they are still widespread in the environment, and the EPA has determined that several alternatives currently in use are also hazardous at relatively low levels.15 16
Unfortunately, there’s yet another way we could be exposed to “forever chemicals” that we may not consider—through industrial discharge entering our food supply.
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) estimates that as much as 20 million acres of U.S. farmland could be contaminated with PFAS-tainted sewage sludge-turned-fertilizer, which is a mix of industrial and human waste the industry calls “biosolids.”17 18 The EPA requires testing of biosolids for some pollutants, but they have never mandated testing for PFAS, or that farmers be warned about the possibility of contamination.19 20 There are also no national and few state requirements to track where biosolids are spread, although the EPA keeps records of the quantity used in most states. Few states appear to be testing for it, but those that do have found soil, livestock, and foods that are contaminated with PFAS, including beef in Michigan and milk in Maine.21 22 23
Maine is one of the few states taking significant steps to prevent the use of toxic biosolids as fertilizer, perhaps because they have gathered the kind of data that compels action. Eco RI News reports that in 2019, the Maine Department of Environmental Protection tested 44 fields where biosolids had been sprayed, and all samples contained at least one PFAS. All but two had levels of the chemicals higher than the state's safety thresholds set in 2018.24 Meanwhile, according to EPA records, two of the top 10 agricultural states in the country—California and Illinois—are also two of the states producing the most biosolids intended for farm use.25 26 If Maine is dealing with widespread PFAS contamination via this “fertilizer,” what's happening in states with a significantly greater agricultural output?
The EPA says it will propose mandatory standards for water treatment facilities this fall to bring PFOS and PFOA levels in line with the revised health advisories. They have also indicated they are considering regulations for a broader range of PFAS, according to the Washington Post; still, it’s unclear how this will impact the issue of toxic biosolids.27 The EWG says the agency’s plan fails to address contaminated biosolids, promising simply to complete studies on the matter by the end of 2024. Most notably, they say, it fails to swiftly confront the primary source of biosolid contamination: industrial PFAS discharge from manufacturers.28
Manage your PFAS exposure in food by choosing certified organic whenever possible, because it’s the only agricultural system in which standards strictly prohibit the use of sewage sludge.29