Toxic ‘forever chemicals’ don’t belong in our farms

Toxic chemicals that never break down have no place in our country’s farms.

Toxic threats

Gary Todd via Flickr | Public Domain
An investigation found thousands of acres of farmland in Illinois contaminated by toxic PFAS.

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This is not how the food cycle is supposed to work. 

Industries are dumping toxic “forever chemicals” in our sewage, which is being turned into fertilizer and — according to recent findings — spread on 20 million acres of land where farmers are growing our food.

This practice poses a threat to our health and environment and it must stop now. These PFAS chemicals never break down once they’re in our environment, and exposure to them has been linked to immune issues, birth defects and some kinds of cancer.

How did we get here?

Wastewater treatment byproducts called biosolids are used as fertilizer on millions of acres of farmland nationwide. But research has revealed that a huge amount of this sludge — millions of acres of farms’ worth — is likely contaminated with toxic PFAS chemicals.

PFAS — or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — are a class of more than 12,000 chemicals that are used to make products water-, grease- and stain-resistant. The chemicals have been found in crops, animals, water and even humans on farms where biosolids were used.

So how exactly has this contamination become so widespread? The industries that create and use PFAS in their products often discharge the chemicals into our nation’s sewer system — meaning they end up in our wastewater treatment plants and, ultimately, in the sludge sent to farms as fertilizer.

It doesn’t have to be this way. 

Getting the “forever chemicals” out of our farms

Illinois is the most recent state forced to reckon with the problem of PFAS-contaminated sludge on farmland. A Chicago Tribune investigation found that sewage sludge is contaminating thousands of acres of northeast Illinois farmland with toxic PFAS.

Meanwhile, researchers have found PFAS in crops and livestock.

This past April, Maine became the first state to ban spreading PFAS-contaminated sludge on crops after discovering PFAS contamination on farms and in farmers’ blood. That’s a great start, but since crops grown in one state can be shipped and used all over the nation, we need to ban the use of toxic sludge everywhere. 

It’s time for our federal lawmakers to extend protections to the whole country. Will you urge Congress to keep toxic sludge away from our food?


John Rumpler

Clean Water Director and Senior Attorney, Environment America

John directs Environment America's efforts to protect our rivers, lakes, streams and drinking water. John’s areas of expertise include lead and other toxic threats to drinking water, factory farms and agribusiness pollution, algal blooms, fracking and the federal Clean Water Act. He previously worked as a staff attorney for Alternatives for Community & Environment and Tobacco Control Resource Center. John lives in Brookline, Mass., with his family, where he enjoys cooking, running, playing tennis, chess and building sandcastles on the beach.