By Shannon Kelleher
In the wake of fresh evidence that US farms are being poisoned by PFAS-laden fertilizers, a watchdog group and two Texas farm families said Thursday they plan to sue regulators to try to force protective actions.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has violated the Clean Water Act by failing to regulate at least 12 per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in treated sewage sludge (biosolids) applied to agricultural lands, allege Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) and the farmers in a notice of intent to sue sent Feb. 22 to EPA Administrator Michael Regan. Studies have linked these particular PFAS chemicals to asthma, disrupted thyroid hormones, immune suppression, kidney problems, lung issues in children, and other health effects, the letter says.
The agency has also unlawfully failed to include in its regular biosolids reports at least 18 additional PFAS chemicals that scientific studies indicate are present in biosolids, PEER and the farmers allege.
PEER and the farmers will sue the EPA within 60 days if the agency does not take immediate action, said PEER executive director Timothy Whitehouse in the notice of intent to sue.
“EPA has deemed it acceptable for biosolids containing PFAS and other known toxic chemicals to be applied directly to soil as fertilizer, where these man-made contaminants then build up in the environment, exacerbating the PFAS contamination crisis,” wrote Whitehouse. “This is not protective of human health or the environment.”
“Because there are no standards, farmers, ranchers, and gardeners have no warning that they are potentially poisoning their soil, water, livestock, and pets with these biosolid fertilizer products,” Kyla Bennett, director of science policy for PEER, said in a press release. “Prompt, responsible regulatory action by EPA would prevent untold damage and heartache.”
By Johnathan Hettinger
US regulators are failing to address toxic “open-air dumps” that in some cases tower many hundreds of feet tall and hundreds of acres wide, according to a group of conservation and public health advocates who have filed a notice of intent to sue the government to force protective action.
The advocacy groups represent people in multiple states who live near the manmade dumps that store massive amounts of a radioactive substance called phosphogypsum, which is generated in the process of creating phosphoric acid for fertilizer. Phosphogypsum and its leachate can contain several hazardous substances, including arsenic, lead, cadmium, and chromium. These substances are considered carcinogenic and known to induce damage to multiple organs, even at lower levels of exposure, according to the National Institutes of Health.
Communities in Florida, Texas, Louisiana and other states are at risk from these dumps, according to the groups. There are four “Superfund” abandoned hazardous waste sites in Idaho, Illinois and Mississippi, where phosphate plants once operated.
The fertilizer industry creates 46 million tons of phosphogypsum each year, more than the amount of regulated hazardous waste produced in all other industries combined, according to the notice of intent to sue. In Florida, alone, there are more than one billion tons of phosphogypsum stored across 25 stacks, the groups say.
“The waste is not just toxic, it’s not just carcinogenic. It’s radioactive,” said Jaclyn Lopez, director of the Jacobs Public Interest Law Clinic for Democracy and the Environment at Stetson University, who is providing legal representation to the groups. Lopez recently authored a legal review finding that these plants are largely concentrated in low-wealth and minority communities across the United States.
“This has the potential to impact truly millions of people,” Lopez said.
By Shannon Kelleher
Two Texas farm families have seen their health decline, their pets and livestock sickened and killed, their water poisoned and and their property values wiped out due to high levels of chemical contamination linked to a company marketing treated sewage sludge as a fertilizer and soil conditioner, according to a lawsuit filed by the families.
The lawsuit alleges the plaintiffs’ farms, located near Fort Worth, were “poisoned by toxic chemicals” after a neighboring farmer took shipment of “smoking” piles of biosolids that contained hazardous per- and polyfluoroalkl substances (PFAS) in late 2022.
The PFAS-laced fertilizer was allegedly made by Synagro of Texas-CDR Inc., using semi-solid treated waste obtained from wastewater facilities. The waste, referred to as biosolids, has been promoted as an effective means for turning sewage into useful agricultural applications that can boost crop yields.
The biosolids are supposed to be treated to remove toxins, but PFAS chemicals are difficult – if not impossible – to break down, and are known to persist in the environment. Sometimes called “forever chemicals,” several types of PFAS are known to be hazardous to human health, including some linked to cancers.
Synagro is one of the largest in the biosolids industry, and knew, or should have known, that its biosolid products contained PFAS, according to the lawsuit, which was filed last week in Maryland, where Synagro is headquartered.
Synagro did not respond to a request for comment. On its website, the company calls itself a “partner for a cleaner, greener world” and says it works to “protect the health of the water, our Earth and those who depend on them now and for the future.”
By Johnathan Hettinger and Carey Gillam
Pregnant women in a key US farm state are showing increasing amounts of a toxic weed killer in their urine, a rise that comes alongside climbing use of the chemicals in agriculture, according to a new study published Friday.
The study, led by the Indiana University School of Medicine, showed that 70% of pregnant women tested in Indiana between 2020 and 2022 had an herbicide called dicamba in their urine, up from 28% from a similar analysis for the period 2010-2012 that included women in Indiana, Illinois and Ohio.
Notably, the new study found that along with a larger percentage of women showing the presence of dicamba in their bodies, the concentrations of the weed killing chemical increased more than four-fold.
The study also looked for the presence of 2,4-dichloroacetic acid, better known as 2,4-D, in the urine samples, finding that 100% of the women in both the earlier study and the new one had 2,4-D in their urine, with detectable, but not significant, increases in concentration levels.
The new findings add to a growing body of literature documenting human exposure to chemicals used in agriculture, and various known and potential health impacts. Many scientists have particular concerns about how farm chemicals impact pregnant women and their children, but say more research – and more regulatory scrutiny – is needed.
“These are two chemicals we’re concerned about because of their increasing use,” said Paul Winchester, a neonatal physician in Indianapolis, Indiana, who was not involved in this study but has authored related studies.
Dicamba exposure has been linked to increased risk of liver and bile duct cancer. Some animal studies of 2,4-D exposure during pregnancy found low body weights and changes in behavior in the offspring, while other studies have found that exposure to 2,4-D appears to increase the risk of lymphoma.