NYS Misses Opportunity to Address Upstream Sources of PFAS Contamination

Photo courtesy of Natural Resources Defence Council and Dr. Linda Birnbaum. Click/tap here to enlarge.

This year, NOFA-NY joined PFAS-Free New York, a broad coalition of organizations and impacted community members advocating for a set of bills that would limit the amount of harmful PFAS chemicals that our bodies, water, and land are exposed to. The package included bills to eliminate PFAS in certain products sold in NY including menstrual products, personal care and cosmetic products, and several household products.  None of the bills passed this legislative session. 

Per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a class of carbon-fluorine bonded man-made substances that have been used for decades in a wide range of products. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has acknowledged that PFAS exposure (possibly at low levels), including from eating and drinking contaminated materials, is linked to reproductive effects, developmental effects in children, increased risk of some cancers, and immune system impacts. 

Nicknamed “forever chemicals” because of their persistence in the environment, PFAS have also been found in drinking water, at industrial sites and military bases, and in soil due to land application of biosolids (the solid material left after municipal wastewater treatment, also known as sewage sludge).  A 2015 NY Department of Environmental Conservation survey of publicly owned plants in NY found that the total biosolids generation rate in NY is approximately 375,000 dry tons (dt) annually the majority of which are disposed of in landfills with about 61,000 dts reclaimed for other uses including land application, particularly on farmland as a soil amendment. 

Both milk from cows grazing on contaminated land or consuming contaminated water and farmland have tested positive for PFAS at high levels. Some organic farms in the state of Maine have discovered PFAS-contaminated soils, most likely due to the application of biosolids decades ago, before the farms were organic.  

When PFAS chemicals enter the waste stream through wastewater, they travel to treatment facilities that are unable to deal with the contamination adequately. The facilities are not required to test for the presence of PFAS in sludge before it is land-applied. Furthermore, technology for identifying and removing contamination from sludge is prohibitively expensive and its effectiveness is unknown. Without effective remediation opportunities and with increased land application–as is detailed in the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation’s 10-year solid waste management plan–PFAS chemicals continue to bioaccumulate. Even in small amounts, continued exposure increases environmental and health risks.

While the package of PFAS product bills, didn’t make their way out of the legislature this session, NOFA-NY will continue to advocate for the passage of these bills and more policies that protect public health and farmland including:  

  • Prohibiting the spreading of biosolids on any agricultural land. 
  • Prohibiting the addition of PFAS ingredients in pesticides.  
  • Limiting the sale of PFAS-containing products and holding manufacturers accountable for resulting contamination. 
  • Facilitating and funding state-wide testing of soil and groundwater where biosolids have been applied. 
  • Funding research into how PFAS contamination impacts farmland and potential methods for remediation of contaminated farmland. 
  • Establishing a threshold for PFAS contamination in food crops. 
  • Supporting farms impacted by contamination with expenses related to testing, compensating losses in revenue due to contamination, and assisting in navigating future business plans.  
  • Establishing a new disaster assistance program to support farms impacted by contamination.