On Friday, the Environmental Protection Agency designated two types of “forever chemicals” as hazardous substances under the federal Superfund law. The move will make it easier for the government to force the manufacturers of these chemicals, called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances or PFAS, to shoulder the costs of cleaning them out of the environment. 

The EPA “will focus enforcement on parties who significantly contributed to the release of PFAS chemicals into the environment, including parties that have manufactured PFAS or used PFAS in the manufacturing process, federal facilities, and other industrial parties,” the agency explained in a press release. The designation, which will take effect in 60 days, comes on the heels of an EPA rule limiting the acceptable amount of the two main types of PFAS found in the United States, PFOS and PFOA, to just 4 parts per trillion.

Although the EPA’s new restrictions are groundbreaking, they only apply to a portion of the nation’s extensive PFAS contamination problem. That’s because drinking water isn’t the only way Americans are exposed to PFAS, and not all companies spreading PFAS into the environment deliberately added the chemicals to the products. In Texas, a group of farmers whose properties were contaminated with PFAS from fertilizer are claiming the manufacturer should have done more to warn buyers about the dangers of its products. The first-of-its-kind lawsuit illustrates how much more regulation will be needed to rid the environment — and Americans’ bodies — of forever chemicals.

PFAS have been around since the middle of the 20th century, when chemical giants DuPont and 3M started putting them in products such as nonstick cookware, firefighting foam, and tape. The chemicals, ultra-effective at repelling water, quickly became ubiquitous in products used by Americans every day: pizza boxes, takeout containers, popcorn bags, waterproof mascara, rain jackets.

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But the stable molecular bonds that make the chemicals so effective in these applications also make them dangerous and long-lasting. The chemicals bind to blood and tissue, where they can build up over time and contribute to a range of health issues. The chemicals have been linked to testicular, kidney, and thyroid cancers; cardiovascular disease; and immune deficiencies. Over decades, as chemical companies led by 3M obscured the dangers of PFAS from federal regulators and the public, the chemicals leached into the environment and migrated into soil and drinking water supplies. They seeped into us, too; 97 percent of Americans have PFAS in their blood

PFAS are also in our excrement — which is a problem because of where that waste ends up. Biosolids, the concentrated byproducts of waste treatment plants, are commonly spread on farms as a fertilizer. The products are incredibly cheap — a selling point for farmers who are often working with razor-thin profit margins. Some 19 billion pounds of wastewater sludge was spread on farmland in 41 states between 2016 and 2022. The EPA estimates that 60 percent of biosolids in the U.S. are applied to agricultural lands

A yellow excavator dumps brown, earthy material into the back of a white mixing truck
Material is loaded into a mixing truck where biosolids and amendments are combined then stored in climate controlled piles to cure at the Tulare Lake Compost plant. Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times / Getty Images

There’s growing evidence that biosolids are rife with forever chemicals that have traveled through people’s bodies. The EPA’s new PFAS rules don’t apply to biosolids, which means this contamination is largely still flying under the radar. The EPA said it aims to conduct a first-ever assessment of PFAS in biosolids later this year, which may result in new restrictions. Preliminary research has shown that the PFAS in waste sludge is absorbed by crops and, in turn, consumed by livestock; it’s even been found in chicken eggs. Some farmers aren’t waiting for the federal government to take action. 

In February, five farmers in Johnson County, Texas, sued Synagro, a biosolids management company based in Maryland, and its subsidiary in Texas. Synagro has contracts with more than 1,000 municipal wastewater plants in North America and handles millions of tons of waste every year. The company separates liquids and solids, and then treats the solids to remove some toxins and pathogens. But PFAS, thanks to their strong molecular bonds, can withstand conventional wastewater treatment. Synagro repurposes 80 percent of the waste it treats, some of which is marketed as Synagro Granulite Fertilizer. 

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The lawsuit claims Synagro “falsely markets” its fertilizers as “safe and organic.” The plaintiffs accuse the company of selling fertilizer with high levels of PFAS and failing to warn farmers about the dangers of PFAS exposure. They say an individual on a neighboring property used Synagro Granulite, and the product then made its way onto their farms. 

Dana Ames, Johnson County’s environmental crimes investigator, opened an investigation after the plaintiffs made a complaint to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the Johnson County constable’s office. Ames tested soil, surface water, and well water samples from the affected farms for PFAS. She found contamination ranging from 91 to 6,290 parts per trillion in soil and water samples from the plaintiffs’ properties. The county also tested tissue from two fish and two calves on those farms. The fish tested as high as 75,000 parts per trillion. The liver of one of the calves came back with an astounding 610,000 parts per trillion of PFOS — about 152,000 times higher than the EPA’s new PFAS drinking water limits.

The plaintiffs voluntarily stopped selling meat, fish, and other agricultural products after discovering the contamination. They’re suing Synagro to recoup their losses and more damages they say are sure to come. Synagro, the complaint reads, failed to conduct adequate environmental studies and the company “knew, or reasonably should have known, of the foreseeable risks and defects of its biosolids fertilizer.”

A spokesperson for Synagro told Grist the company denies the “unproven and novel” allegations. “EPA continues to support land application of biosolids as a valuable practice that recycles nutrients to farmland and has not suggested that any changes in biosolids management is required,” the spokesperson said, highlighting the lack of federal regulations. 

A sign says Synagro in front of an outdoor fenced area that contains a white semi truck
Workers move materials at Nursery Products, an 80-acre biosolids composting facility in California owned by Synagro. Paul Bersebach / MediaNews Group / Orange County Register / Getty Images

Ames, the investigator, said that federal and state inaction is the real root of the problem. “EPA has failed the American people and our regulatory agency here in the state of Texas has failed Texans by knowingly allowing this to continue and knowingly allowing farms to be contaminated and people, too,” Ames told Grist. 

In response to Grist’s request for comment, the EPA confirmed that recent federal PFAS restrictions do not affect the application of biosolids on farmland. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality declined to comment on the ongoing litigation in Texas.

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, an environmental nonprofit that helped organize the PFAS testing on the plaintiffs’ properties in Texas, is considering filing its own lawsuit against the EPA for not implementing restrictions on PFAS in biosolids. “They have a mandatory duty to look at what pollutants are in these biosolids and set standards for them,” said the group’s science policy director, Kyla Bennett, who is a former EPA employee. “They have not followed through.”

The Texas plaintiffs aren’t the only farmers struggling with a PFAS contamination problem due to the use of biosolids. Maine already banned the use of biosolids as fertilizer in 2022 after dozens of farms tested positive for forever chemicals. A farmer in Michigan who used biosolids fertilizer was forced to shut down his 300-acre farm after state officials found PFAS on his property. It’s likely that any farmland in the U.S. that has seen the use of biosolids products has a PFAS problem. “No one is immune to this,” Bennett said. “If people don’t know that their farms are contaminated it’s because they haven’t looked.”

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