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February 15, 2022 | Arthur Siegal

PFAS impacts Michigan agriculture

Late last month, Michigan became one of the first few states to take a public stance on PFAS in the food supply.  The Michigan Department of Agriculture issued a Consumption Advisory notifying consumers that beef from a farm in Livingston County may contain perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS). PFOS is part of the PFAS chemical family and testing by the State indicated PFOS was present in the beef tissue, reportedly at 1.9 parts per billion (ppb), with PFAS compounds typically measured in the parts per trillion (ppt).  Michigan’s drinking water standard for PFOS is 16 ppt and the levels found in the suspect beef were at 1,900 ppt.  At present, there are no current state or federal standards related to PFOS in beef.  

Based on information from the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE), it appears that the PFOS entered the agricultural food chain through biosolids from a local municipal sewage treatment plant being used as fertilizer. As a result, one can hypothesize that the fertilizer contaminated the plants, drinking water, and the livestock eating those plants and drinking that water, creating a chain reaction and complete crisis.

With some PFAS chemicals still in use or present in industrial systems and landfills, they can still end up in wastewater treatment plants. The application of biosolid residuals from wastewater treatment on agricultural land is permitted and regulated by the State, since these products contain nutrients that enhance agricultural production.  However, as we have learned, these residuals may also contain PFAS. Since PFAS are persistent in the environment, the application of residuals decades ago can still impact PFAS levels in the soil today. Under an interim strategy launched last year, Michigan began prohibiting the land application of industrially impacted biosolids containing more than 150 parts per billion (ppb) of PFOS and now requires testing of biosolids before land application.

This appears to have been one of the first times in the country that a farm has been shut down by PFAS.  Reportedly, two Maine dairy farms had PFAS contaminated milk and beef, requiring farmers to kill livestock and dump milk without compensation. Farms in New Mexico and Colorado have been reportedly contaminated by PFAS linked to run-off from military bases.

For those of us who remember the PBB fiasco in the mid 1970’s – this could be much worse and much more expensive and widespread.  This may impact agriculture near urban and industrialized areas. How this will play out, and who will pay for the loss of animals and the remediation of soils is yet to be determined.