New York fails to protect farmland from PFAS in sewage sludge, report finds

By Shannon Kelleher

Highlighting a practice that compromises farmland nationwide, a new report finds that sewage sludge spread as fertilizer on New York state fields contains toxic chemicals that sicken farmers, contaminate crops, and threaten consumer health. The report, published today by the Sierra Club Atlantic Chapter, suggests that the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has failed to take measures to prevent these dangerous per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) from entering the environment through the practice and urges the state to put a stop to it.

“What we are talking about here is the active permitting…of PFAS-contaminated sewer sludge being spread over farmland to create food that we then consume,” said New York state assemblymember Anna Kelles today in a briefing about the report. “It’s literally creating a mechanism to get PFAS to bioaccumulate in human tissue.”

Kelles is working with Senator Rachel May to pass a bill that would require wastewater treatment plants to test effluent for PFAS contamination.

PFAS chemicals are associated with serious health conditions including cancers, thyroid disease, liver damage, and harm to pregnant women and babies. These so-called “forever chemicals” take hundreds of years to break down in the environment and are harmful even in tiny concentrations.
“We’re taking an enormous risk when we spread sludge on farmland,” said Adam Nordell, an organic farmer in Maine. Nordell was forced to learn about the risk firsthand the winter before last, when he and his wife discovered PFAS in their well water at levels 400 times higher than Maine’s interim drinking water standard.

“Our farm had been managed organically for seven years under our management and previously under organic practices for 25 years,” said Nordell in the briefing. “But a prior generation in the early 1990s spread the land with sludge from two wastewater districts for a total of four years.”

A test last spring revealed PFAS levels in Nordell’s blood serum at a staggering 3,500 parts per billion. People with blood serum levels totaling as little as two parts per billion from seven combined PFAS are at risk for adverse effects, according to a 2022 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

The problem of PFAS in sewage sludge used to fertilize agricultural fields extends far beyond the Northeast, said Laura Orlando, a senior science advisor with Just Zero, a nonprofit focused on equitable waste solutions.