Texas Farms Poisoned by PFAS-Laden Biosolid Fertilizers

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Friday, February 16, 2024
Kyla Bennett (508) 230-9933

Texas Farms Poisoned by PFAS-Laden Biosolid Fertilizers

Johnson County Holds Hearing to Warn Citizens About Synagro’s Biosolids


Washington, DC — Toxic chemicals in fertilizers made from sewage sludge are linked to dead livestock and fouled groundwater on farms in Johnson County, Texas, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The County has opened a criminal investigation into these events, and, while the investigation is ongoing, they are holding public hearings to warn residents so they can take protective action.

The biosolid fertilizer manufacturer Synagro has more than a thousand municipal wastewater facilities as its customers across North America, and took over the biosolids program for the City of Fort Worth in 2020. Two farm families in Grandview, Texas, complained of horrific smells coming from a neighboring absentee farm property after land application of biosolids from Synagro in December of 2022. The families have also experienced the death of ten cows and a horse, and an alarming concentration of contaminants on their properties.

Per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are toxic to humans in concentrations as small as parts per quadrillion. The levels found in the samples from the farms were vastly higher. Known as “forever chemicals” because they do not break down in the environment, the adverse health impacts of PFAS are well documented.

Laboratory tests analyzed by PEER revealed incredibly high levels of toxic PFAS in the soil, ponds, and well water high enough to cause or contribute to deaths of cows, horses, and catfish:

  • One of the drinking water wells at these two farms yielded 268.2 parts-per-trillion (ppt) of PFAS levels, and one of the ponds had over 1,333 ppt of PFAS;
  • Calves and horses are dying; a liver of a stillborn calf tested at 610,000 ppt of PFOS, a type of PFAS for which the U.S Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says there is no safe level; and
  • Two catfish tested had 74,000 and 57,000 ppt of PFOS respectively.

To put these levels in perspective, one 8-ounce serving of these fish would exceed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) reference dose, or the estimate of ingested dose of a chemical that is unlikely to result in noncancer health effects, for PFOS exposure by 30,000 times, and consumption of one serving of the calf liver would exceed EPA’s reference dose by 250,000 times.

Stillborn calf had ultra-high PFAS levels in its liver

“We see accounts of similar agricultural contamination calamities linked to biosolids across the country,” stated PEER Science Policy Director Kyla Bennett, a scientist and attorney formerly with EPA, who prepared an analytic report used by Johnson County officials. “It is important to note that each subsequent application of biosolids will increase the levels of PFAS in these soils and waters and will only exacerbate existing problems.”

Biosolids, also known as sewage sludge, are the treated organic matter separated from human sewage waste; during the wastewater treatment process, liquids are separated from the solids, and the solids are treated to remove some toxic ingredients and reduce pathogens. However, biosolids typically contain a variety of persistent pollutants, including PFAS. Approximately 25% of the nation’s biosolids are applied to agricultural fields as fertilizer.

Located in the Dallas–Fort Worth–Arlington metro area, Johnson County has approximately 180,000 residents. Like all of Texas’ 254 counties, Johnson County has independent law enforcement authority.

“We do not believe the ecological and public health damage is confined to Johnson County,” added Bennett, pointing out that PFAS levels in biosolids remain largely unregulated. “Texas may have a huge PFAS agricultural contamination headache on its hands.”


Read the PEER analytical report to Johnson County

Look at the threat of PFAS in biosolid fertilizers

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