Michigan beef found to contain dangerous levels of ‘forever chemicals’
Tom Perkins Fri 11 Feb 2022 06.00 EST
Contamination at a small farm discovered after sewage sludge was tested for PFAS, but officials downplayed incident as ‘isolated’
Tom PerkinsFri 11 Feb 2022 06.00 EST
Cattle from a small south-east Michigan farm that sold beef to schools and at farmers’ markets in the state have been found to contain dangerous levels of PFAS, so-called “forever chemicals” that can pose a serious risk to human health.
The news comes after consumer groups in 2019 warned that using PFAS-laden sewage sludge as fertilizer would contaminate dairy, beef, crops and other food products. However, at the time a Michigan agricultural regulator publicly assured the state’s dairy farmers her agency wouldn’t test milk for the toxic chemicals as they didn’t want to inflict economic pain on the $15bn industry, she said.
Now just over two years later, consumer groups say their fears may have come true.
Michigan discovered the contamination because it tests sewage sludge for PFAS more than any other state, but officials have downplayed the incident as “isolated” and for now won’t conduct further testing on livestock, dairy or crops.
“It’s not enough – we need a lot more monitoring of our agriculture to make sure we’re keeping toxic chemicals out of our food supply,” said Christy McGillivray, executive director of Sierra Club of Michigan.
Sludge isn’t the only route PFAS takes into the nation’s food. It’s also found in pesticides, rain, packaging and water used on crops, and testing is increasingly finding the chemicals in vegetables, seafood, meat, dairy and processed foods. Consumer groups say regulators are failing to keep the dangerous compounds out of food, a problem highlighted by the Michigan contamination.
PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a class of over 9,000 compounds that are used to make products heat, water and stain resistant. They are dubbed “forever chemicals” because they don’t naturally break down, and they are so effective that they are used in thousands of products across dozens of industries.
The chemicals are also linked to a range of serious health problems like cancer, liver disease, kidney issues, high cholesterol, birth defects and decreased immunity.
Still, the US Department of Agriculture has largely been absent from the PFAS discussion while the US Food And Drug Administration hasn’t yet established health limits for food. The agency only conducts limited annual testing and recently adjusted its methodology so it will only catch what consumer groups say are extremely high contamination levels, and ignore relatively low to moderate levels that can still pose a health risk.
In 2019, the FDA initially found 182 food samples to be contaminated with PFAS, but, after changing its methodology part way through the study, that figure dropped to 78, drawing accusations that it was intentionally covering up contamination.
“Imagine using a radar gun to detect speeding in cars, but then manipulating the radar so that it only detects speeding in cars going over 100mph,” wrote Brian Ronholm, a former deputy under secretary of food safety at the US Department of Agriculture, in Consumer Reports after the FDA announced the change.
Meanwhile, the FDA allows short-chain PFAS to be used in food packaging despite a growing body of evidence that the chemicals bioaccumulate, leach into food and are toxic at very low levels.
Though health limits for PFAS in water have been dropping in recent years, the FDA seems to be allowing relatively high levels in food, and the agency “hasn’t really explained why they don’t have any concerns”, said Maricel Maffini, an independent food safety scientist who has petitioned the FDA to restrict PFAS in food packaging.
“There’s a health risk in water at very, very small levels of exposure, so why would food be different?” she asked. “The FDA could be doing a lot more.”
Meanwhile, sewage sludge is regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which allows the substance to be spread even as it investigates potential health risks. Wastewater treatment plants clean sewer system water, and sludge is the process’s semi-solid byproduct. It’s expensive to dispose of, and about 60% of it is now lightly treated and sold or given away as “biosolid” fertilizer because it’s high in plant nutrients.
Consumer groups note sludge can also contain any of 90,000 manmade chemicals discharged into sewers, and the Sierra Club has characterized it as “the most pollutant-rich manmade substance on Earth”.
In a scathing 2018 report the EPA office of inspector general wrote that the EPA couldn’t properly regulate biosolids because “it lacked the data or risk assessment tools needed to make a determination on the safety of 352 pollutants” that the office found in sludge samples.
PFAS is the chemical in sludge getting the most attention, and Michigan’s biosolid program, run by the department of environment, Great Lakes and energy (EGLE), requires wastewater treatment plants to monitor for one type of PFAS. The agency has also identified dozens of PFAS polluters and required them to stop discharging the chemicals, and prohibits highly contaminated sludge from being spread.
But questions remain about whether that’s enough to keep PFAS out of the food supply. Instead of implementing a wide-scale program to test livestock, crops and dairy for the chemicals, state agencies identified 13 farm fields considered most at risk for high levels of PFAS contamination, then checked nearby soil, surface water and groundwater for the compounds.
State officials say the beef incident is isolated because the farm received some of the state’s most contaminated sludge, and because of its allegedly unique farming practices – the cows were fed on contaminated crops grown on the farm.
But consumer groups say the limited testing process leaves huge blind spots, and is guided by arbitrary health risk standards. All biosolids contain PFAS, and EGLE considers sludge with less than 150 parts per billion (ppb) of PFAS to be safe to spread on farmland. But no one knows if sludge with less than 150 ppb of PFAS is safe to use. A spokesperson said the agency is waiting on the EPA to develop health risk standards, and called EGLE’s biosolids program “a good interim step”.
Moreover, state regulators only have the authority to regulate PFAS in sludge, but thousands more types of PFAS exist, evidence suggests the entire chemical class poses health risks, and PFAS levels in sludge are likely much higher when other compounds are included.
The state also relies on industry to self report and must get farmers’ permission to test cows. Already some farmers with high levels of the chemical in soil and water around their fields won’t let EGLE test cows.
McGillivray said Sierra Club Michigan is calling on the state to prohibit the use of biosolids as a fertilizer, establish health risk standards, compensate farmers who are impacted, and hold chemical companies and polluters accountable. Ultimately, the incident is more evidence that PFAS need to be banned, she added.
“The companies that make them have not had to show that they are safe, and instead the public has to show that harm has been caused, and that leads to rolling public health crises like this one with PFAS,” McGillivray said.