GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A new report from the nonprofit Environmental Working Group estimates between 2 and 20 million acres of cropland across the United States are contaminated with PFAS — a “forever chemical” that has been used by manufacturers for decades but only recently has been discovered to cause severe health issues.
According to Scott Faber, the vice president of government affairs for the EWG, most of the farmland is contaminated through sewage sludge — essentially the leftovers once wastewater and stormwater are processed at a treatment facility. Solid material is sifted out of the water and digested by bacteria. However, even after that process, sewage sludge can still hold elements from the waste, including medical, chemical and industrial waste.
Wastewater treatment facilities have three options for getting rid of sewage sludge: incineration, putting it in a landfill, or selling it as a fertilizer. According to the EWG, that third option is what has played a role in contaminating potentially millions of acres of farmland.
“A sludge application that may have occurred 15 or 20 years ago may still result in PFAS working its way up into food crops or feed, or ultimately the animals that eat that feed or the animal products that people enjoy,” Faber told News 8. “This could be a really big challenge for farmers and of course, until very recently farmers really didn’t know.”
ESTABLISHING THE DATA
The study from the EWG is mostly based off data from Ohio, the only state that has analyzed how many farms and acres have used sewage sludge as a fertilizer. Faber says the EWG can only give an estimate because not enough research has been done on sewage sludge.
“We don’t have a complete picture for that because some big states are not reporting that to EPA, including Texas,” Faber said. “So we looked at what we knew about how many tons of sludge regenerated. And we looked at what (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) thinks, they don’t know for sure, but they think is the average ton per acre that’s applied, and we came up with a low-end estimate of about 2 million acres.”
Faber says 2 million contaminated acres is the best-case scenario, but extremely unlikely.
“To be honest, nobody knows, least of all EPA, how many (acres are contaminated). How many tons of sludge were being applied? How many acres are being contaminated? How many tons of the sludge are heavily contaminated with PFAS? Is there such a thing as clean sledge where no PFAS is present? Those are questions we should have had answered 20 years ago,” Faber said.
The EPA is conducting studies on sewage sludge but doesn’t expect a full report with findings to be ready until 2024.
“We shouldn’t wait until 2024 at a minimum to test sludge and warn farmers. Don’t poison your fields with a forever chemical that may rob you of the ability to earn a living,” Faber said.
CAN WE FIX THIS?
To slow the spread of PFAS, it needs to be stopped at the source. The EWG estimates approximately 30,000 different companies leak PFAS directly or indirectly into the environment.
Second, Faber says farms should stop using sewage sludge as a fertilizer until it is confirmed to be safe.
“The first step is not to put it on food crops and feed in ways that ultimately works its way up into the food system,” Faber told News 8. “It ultimately not just threatens farmers but threatens consumers as well. It turns out, unless you’re in a community with very high levels of PFAS in your drinking water, it’s probably your food that’s a bigger source of exposure to PFAS.”
Some states have taken action. Connecticut is banned using sewage sludge on cropland and Maine’s state legislature is following similar steps. Faber says Michigan has set some limits but not nearly enough to protect the state’s residents.
“Michigan has set some pretty modest standards,” Faber said. “There are limits on when you can apply sludge. … It’s a pretty modest step. We ultimately are going to need to set tougher limits if we’re going to allow farmers to continue to use sludge.”
As of now, there are no short-term remediation methods to get rid of PFAS in the environment. It is possible we have millions of acres of farmland that would need to be left behind to ensure products stay PFAS-free. Faber calls that the worst-case scenario.
“There are not remediation technologies that can really address this issue right now. That doesn’t mean we can’t develop them,” Faber said. “You know, I think America is really good at cleaning up our mess. We have developed lots of technologies to clean up contaminated drinking water, contaminated groundwater. Michigan’s a great example of that.”
Currently, there are no national requirements to test sewage sludge for PFAS nor are there requirements to notify farmers that the product they are purchasing could contain the chemicals. Some farmers have taken it upon themselves to test their products, even euthanize some of their animals to avoid spreading the chemicals, but there are no standards forcing farmers to do so.
“There’s not much incentive for farmers to ask: ‘Is my soil already contaminated?’ Right? There’s the bad news that no one wants to get,” Faber said. “So I think for a lot of reasons, it will be hard to help farmers figure out to what extent are their soils contaminated.”
Faber encourages people to speak up and press the EPA and lawmakers to raise standards, but until then, it will be on farmers, businesses and consumers to hold products to high standards.
Said Faber: “I do think, at some point, the folks farther up the supply chain — the, the ingredient suppliers, the food manufacturers, the retailers, the consumers — are going to start asking tougher and tougher questions about whether or not these foods are contaminated.”