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PFAS 'forever chemicals' could be contaminating millions of acres of farmland


Applying organic waste, like manure, to farmland has been going on for centuries, and biosolids follow the same logic. They are a nutrient-rich fertilizer made from treated sewage. But biosolids can also contain toxic forever chemicals known as PFAS, and there's concern they could inadvertently be contaminating millions of acres of farmland. Harvest Public Media contributor Teresa Homsi reports.

TERESA HOMSI, BYLINE: Jason Grostic comes from a long line of farmers.

JASON GROSTIC: We're a hundred-plus-year operation. My grandpa milked cows. My dad milked cows. I milk cows, got into the beef industry. It's in my blood.

HOMSI: But Grostic says he was blindsided two years ago, when the state of Michigan ordered him to shut down, citing high levels of PFAS in his beef and soil. For years, Grostic had been using biosolids to fertilize his crops, which he then fed his cattle. But he says he was never warned about PFAS.

GROSTIC: I took a fertilizer source that was recommended and was EPA-approved, and the government dropped the ball by not testing it and assuring it was a clean product.

HOMSI: His entire 400-acre farm was deemed unusable. And Grostic says he's now near bankruptcy. There's been increasing concern over PFAS across the nation. These chemicals are widely used in consumer and industrial products, but they don't break down, and wastewater plants can't treat them. Michigan has conducted one of the most extensive PFAS investigations in the country. And it's led the state to wastewater plants, biosolids and also Grostic's farm. Stephanie Kammer is an emerging pollutants manager with Michigan's environmental department.

STEPHANIE KAMMER: We are wanting to get to as low of concentrations of PFAS in our effluent and our biosolids as we can.

HOMSI: Few states even screened for PFAS in their wastewater. Michigan goes a step further and sets a standard for PFAS levels in biosolids.

KAMMER: If we have biosolids under 20 parts per billion, we feel pretty comfortable that there isn't, like, a significant source.

HOMSI: Those standards were set with a lot of uncertainty. The Environmental Protection Agency is expected to release PFAS guidelines on biosolids later this year. States that aren't regularly testing, like Iowa, the Dakotas and Oklahoma, say they're waiting for the EPA's lead before implementing any regulations. But testing for PFAS in biosolids wasn't good enough for officials in Maine. In 2022, that state banned the use of biosolids altogether after dozens of contaminated farms were identified.

SHELLEY MEGQUIER: It seems like a pretty common sense approach, I think, to a lot of us to then ban the application.

HOMSI: Shelley Megquier is a policy and research director with the Maine Farmland Trust, which supports the ban. Megquier says while the state investigates farms for contamination, it's also created a $60 million fund to help impacted farmers. She says a similar national fund could encourage states to act.

MEGQUIER: With PFAS, if you look for it, you will find it. I think other states would be better supported in addressing PFAS if there was a federal safety net.

HOMSI: No safety net currently exists for farmers in Michigan. Jason Grostic has lost his family business, and he's had to break the news to his kids. They won't take over the farm.

GROSTIC: It's not a conversation you want. It's not one I should have to have.

HOMSI: Grostic doubts he's the only farmer affected by PFAS in Michigan or the U.S. He's filed a lawsuit looking for compensation for his losses. And as more states examine PFAS contamination, Grostic says farmers can't be left behind. For NPR News, I'm Teresa Homsi.

(SOUNDBITE OF JACK IRVINE SONG, "GLUE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Teresa Homsi