It’s Time to Step Off the PFAS Merry-Go-Round

Wastewater treatment plants are known to have PFAS pollution

If nothing else, read this…

It seems like every day there is a story in the news about PFAS (toxic forever chemicals). A quick search turns up newspaper headlines like these: At least 60% of US population may face ‘forever chemicals’ in tap water.; Texas farmers claim company sold them PFAS-contaminated sludge that killed livestock; A U.N. panel claims North Carolina ‘forever chemical’ plant violates human rights. The merry-go-round that is PFAS pollution is out of control. We need to address this crisis now, with swift action from all levels of government.

PFAS and the Waste Connection

Per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known as PFAS or forever chemicals, are a group of more than 15,000 human-made chemicals. They are extremely persistent, meaning they don’t break down easily and therefore, stick around in our bodies and the environment. They are used in manufacturing, oil and gas operations, consumer products, and fire-fighting foam. In fact, PFAS are so ubiquitous that most Americans have PFAS in their bodies, with known and unknown consequences to their health. Some of the known health impacts include high cholesterol levels, immune system disfunction, autoimmune disease, and cancer. But how do these dangerous chemicals get into our bodies and wreak havoc on our health? Waste has a lot to do with it.

Landfills and wastewater treatment plants are major sources of PFAS pollution. Industries using PFAS, such as paper manufacturers, discharge their wastewater into the sewer. Landfills bury waste that is full of PFAS. Both wastewater treatment plants and landfills then discharge those PFAS into our environment. They also bring together the chemical building blocks that can create various forever chemicals. Think of it this way: Landfills and wastewater treatment plants don’t just collect and release PFAS, they’re also accidental PFAS manufacturing sites.

Holes in the Ground with a Whole Lot of PFAS

Municipal landfills (landfills that bury trash from cities and towns) make up 93% of landfills in the United States accept and bury waste. The other 7% are hazardous waste landfills regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency. There are over 2,600 municipal waste landfills across the country – and they bury more than just your household trash. These facilities also take construction and demolition materials, sewage sludge, and other industrial wastes from cities and towns. All of which can contain PFAS.

With everything we bury in landfills, it’s no surprise that these facilities are poisonous. But the danger doesn’t end there in the trash pit. As water – from rain, snow, or the garbage itself – moves through the waste pile, landfill leachate forms. All the chemicals from the waste in the landfill are often found in this toxic garbage brew, including PFAS.

While PFAS can stay in landfills, they can also escape them – through the air or via leachate. Because all landfills leak, this leachate, and the PFAS in contains, drains into the groundwater, surface water, or soil. Leachate can also be captured by a landfill’s lining, where it either gets trucked or piped to a wastewater treatment plant. A single landfill, such as the Seneca Meadows landfill in New York, can generate tens of millions of gallons of PFAS-contaminated leachate each year. When leachate goes to wastewater treatment plants, like at Seneca Meadows, none of the PFAS is treated, meaning none of it is contained or transformed into something less dangerous.

One study calculated that the mass of PFAS coming from U.S. landfills and going to wastewater treatment plants is equal to between 1,240 – 1,400 pounds each year. This is a jaw-dropping number. Especially considering the federal government’s proposed rules for drinking water standards limit PFAS contamination to 4 parts per trillion – equivalent to four drops of water in twenty Olympic-sized swimming pools.

The PFAS Merry-Go-Round

What does it mean that PFAS-contaminated leachate remains untreated in the wastewater treatment plant? This is where the PFAS merry-go-round really starts to spin. Sewage is a mix of whatever household, commercial, and industrial waste gets flushed or drained into the sewer. Once leachate is added to the sewer, it, too, becomes sewage. That’s right – sewage is not just poop. Approximately 16,500 wastewater treatment plants across the U.S. process sewage, resulting in 1) treated wastewater and 2) sewage sludge.

The focus of sewage treatment is to reduce discharges of so-called conventional pollutants like oil, grease, nitrogen,  and fecal bacteria in the treated wastewater. These pollutants can make receiving waterbodies – lakes, rivers, and streams – undrinkable, unfishable, un-swimmable, and unsightly. Synthetic chemicals like PFAS are not “treated.” Why? Because the wastewater treatment process was not designed to remove or reduce anything other than conventional pollutants.

Sewage sludge is an unwanted by-product of the wastewater treatment process. It’s also where many of the chemicals that enter a wastewater treatment plant via landfill leachate, households, manufacturing, and industrial sources, including high concentrations of PFAS, end up. But the rules that regulate what happens to sewage sludge once it leaves a wastewater plant do not protect us or the environment from synthetic chemicals, including PFAS.

So, where does the sludge go? Over 40% of the millions of tons of sludge generated every year is land applied. This means it gets spread over land – mostly farmland – as a fertilizer. All of it is PFAS-contaminated, and the more sludge spread, the more the PFAS concentrates in the soil, crops, and water – eventually, making its way into our bodies.

Stepping Off the Merry-Go-Round

You cannot fix something until you recognize the problem. Transparency is critical. For example, it is crucial that we not only test for PFAS in landfill leachate, sewage sludge, and treated wastewater, but that we also make testing data readily available to the public. Regular testing gives us a better understanding of what is going in and coming out of wastewater treatment plants. We know wastewater plants and landfills are major sources and distributors of PFAS. But it’s time for the U.S. federal government to get a handle on the numbers and act.

Ending PFAS manufacturing, as well as banning PFAS in clothing, consumer goods, and packaging, are critical to protecting our health and safety from this dangerous class of chemicals. So too are better drinking water and hazardous chemical regulations. But even if we were to ban all PFAS tomorrow (which we should), the existing PFAS in our lives will continue to pose an enormous risk from landfills and wastewater treatment plants – for decades. That said, we need more than PFAS bans and stronger regulations. We also need to mitigate the risk from these facilities.

Jumping off the PFAS merry-go-round means acknowledging that closing landfills will result in a lot less PFAS-contaminated leachate. It means implementing better leachate treatment processes to remove as much PFAS as possible. It means following Maine’s lead and banning PFAS-contaminated sewage sludge from being spread on all land. And yes, it also means embracing Zero Waste policies that ultimately put people and our environment first – not the industries that benefit from the toxic waste crisis. Jumping off the PFAS merry-go-round is good for our soil, air, and water. And it’s good for you and me.

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