Fertilizers used by home gardeners contain dangerous PFAS, a new study has found. Matt Porteous / DigitalVision / Getty Images
From the looks of it, “forever chemicals” could also be called “everywhere chemicals.” Toxic per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) have shown up in everything from drinking water to mothers’ milk. And, most recently, in the fertilizers home gardeners use to grow food.
A report published last week by the Ecology Center and the Sierra Club tested home fertilizers made from sewage waste for PFAS and found the chemicals in all nine of the fertilizers they tested. Further, eight of the nine fertilizers contained PFAS levels greater than the limit set by the state of Maine, which currently has the toughest regulations for PFAS concentration in agriculture.
“Spreading biosolids or sewage sludge where we grow food means some PFAS will get in the soil, some will be taken up by plants, and if the plants are eaten, then that’s a direct route into the body,” report co-author and Ecology Center senior scientist Gillian Miller told The Guardian.
PFAS are chemicals used by a variety of industries to make products resistant to stains, water or grease. Their wide use is a problem, however, because they persist in the environment for an extended period of time and have been linked to health impacts including cancer, birth defects and liver disease.
One of the ways that PFAS can enter the environment is through wastewater, as companies in most states are not prevented from flushing PFAS-containing wastewater into treatment plants, the report explained. Wastewater treatment plants, however, do not remove the chemicals, which then adhere to solid waste.
This waste, known as sewage sludge, is often used as fertilizer for agriculture because it contains nutrients like nitrogen. In fact, almost half of U.S. sewage is spread on farms, pastures or wild areas. It also ends up in home fertilizers under the ingredient name “biosolids,” as a Sierra Club press release explained.
The report tested nine fertilizers containing “biosolids” that are sold at nationwide chains including Lowe’s, The Home Depot and Ace Hardware. The researchers tested the products for 33 PFAS compounds and found 24 of these in at least one product. Further, between 14 and 20 different PFAS compounds were found in every fertilizer. The affected products were
- Cured Bloom (Washington, DC)
- TAGRO Mix (Tacoma, Washington)
- Milorganite 6-4-0 (Milwaukee, Wisconsin)
- Pro Care Natural Fertilizer (Madison, Georgia)
- EcoScraps Slow-Release Fertilizer (Las Vegas, Nevada)
- Menards Premium Natural Fertilizer (Eau Claire, Wisconsin)
- GreenEdge Slow Release Fertilizer (Jacksonville, Florida)
- Earthlife Natural Fertilizer (North Andover, Massachusetts)
- Synagro Granulite Fertilizer Pellets (Sacramento area, California)
As the list makes clear, many of these products are listed as natural or have names implying they are eco-friendly. Home gardeners can protect themselves, however, by avoiding products containing biosolids altogether.
“Sewage sludge cannot be used as a fertilizer on certified organic crops, so if you wish to keep your home garden organic, use fertilizers and composts that are not made from sewage waste,” Sierra Club Michigan legislative and political director Christy McGillivray said in a press release.
However, the report authors also called for structural changes to keep PFAS out of the environment to begin with. These include:
- Limiting the use of PFAS to rare exceptions.
- Stopping PFAS users from disposing of them in wastewater.
- Studying the dangers of using contaminated sewage for agriculture and setting safety regulations.
- Compelling PFAS polluters to pay for the damage they have done and any necessary cleanup efforts.
“Every week we learn of another way that PFAS chemicals contaminate our bodies and the environment around us. Enough is enough,” Linda Birnbaum, scientist emeritus and former director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and National Toxicology Program, said in the press release. “The EPA needs to take immediate action to prevent the reckless contamination of our food and water, soil and air by limiting the use of PFAS chemicals wherever possible.”
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