By Sally Brown, University of Washington

Abstracts of these resources are available in the searchable Information Portal offered to Northwest Biosolids members. 

  1. Sludge in the garden Toxic PFAS in home fertilizers made from sewage sludge
  2. Per‐ and Polyfluoroalkyl substance toxicity and human health review: Current state of knowledge and strategies for informing future research
  3. Fluorinated compounds in North American cosmetics
  4. Sources, fate, and plant uptake in agricultural systems of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances
  5. Removal of PFASs from biosolids using a semi- pilot scale pyrolysis reactor and the application of biosolids derived biochar for the removal of PFASs from contaminated water

It turns out that last month’s library was timed perfectly to coincide with the Sierra Club’s publication on toxic sludge and PFAS.  I was more than ready to move on this month to a topic like biosolids and soil health (likely pushed to August)  but then I got this news alert from the Seattle Times that PFAS is in cosmetics.  I couldn’t let that one go.  So here you have yet another library on PFAS- one that includes the details on PFAS in your mascara.

This one starts with the Sierra Club’s diatribe.   Here is their big graphic:

There is a lot of text about how biosolids in your gardens is poison.  They do say that the answer is to stop using these chemicals but that doesn’t seem to be on the top of their list for actionable items- note the title of the publication.  Also note that in the graphic the belching factory and the leaching landfill are more prominent sources than the home.  The home being the predominant source for most treatment plants across the US.

They have data on a number of biosolids based soil products:

A high of about 230 ppb in one of the materials but most under 100 ppb.  They also have a table of PFOS and PFOA concentrations in these toxic biosolids using the Maine standards as a point of reference.  ME has a limit of 2.5 ppb for PFOA and 5.2 ppb for PFOS.  All but one of the biosolids tested exceeded those limits for one or both of those compounds.  The highest values were from the BLOOM product tested (23.8 for PFOA and 22.1 for PFOS).  How you can come up with significant decimal places when you are talking about 23.8 in 1 000 000 000 is beyond me.  A friend of mine got BLOOM delivered last year.  She was eating tomatoes for months from her garden.  I think the Sierra club is referring to a very subtle type of poison here.

Article number two takes us a step back from the trash talking and the sky is falling.  So much terror about these compounds- how can they hurt us and is there solid evidence of this harm?  This paper is a review on the state of knowledge on human impacts from PFAS exposure.  Here is the low down- the VAST majority of the data is from PFAS and PFOA- referred to here as legacy compounds.  Here is what has been documented with exposure to these compounds:

Epidemiological studies have revealed associations between exposure to specific PFAS and a variety of health effects, including altered immune and thyroid function, liver disease, lipid and insulin dysregulation, kidney disease, adverse reproductive and developmental outcomes, and cancer.

The authors note that some of these have been confirmed in animal studies.  They also have a great figure showing potential effects and strength of evidence.

They go through different potential adverse health effects and present the evidence.

The critical thing here is that the impacts have been noted for the LEGACY compounds with the health implications of the hundreds of new varieties flooding the marketplace as yet unknown.

That brings us to the third article, the one that got my attention.  Turns out that this stuff is in your cosmetics. At a mean and median concentration of 264 and 1050 ppb.  I got the conversions right this time.  Sierra Club is having a cow and in the meantime the stuff is in lipstick and mascara at concentrations higher than (a lot for most) than biosolids.  You don’t see Revlon or Maybelline pulling product.

So obviously- exposure potential is much higher if you put stuff on your lips and eyes instead of in your soil.  But let’s look at the behavior of these compounds in terrestrial systems.  That would be paper #4.

This review comes from Linda Lee and team at Purdue- perhaps the world experts on the behavior of these compounds in the environment.  Also a speaker at our September on line Biofest.  A critical thing to note in this paper- soils in North America with no known PFAS sources found PFOS and PFOA concentrations ranging from 0.02- 2.55 ppb.  A global study with solids collected from 62 locations with little to no human exposure found PFAS in all of them.  It isn’t the biosolids folks- more people by orders of magnitude- are exposed to lipstick than to biosolids.  Most of the studies the authors found were focused on biosolids amended and irrigated soils- but perhaps future studies should focus on makeup counters.

For an idea of what is in biosolids and other residuals -based composts look to paper 5.  The numbers may agree with the  Sierra Club hysteria but the source is trusted and the conclusions are more grounded in reality and not fear-mongering.  This paper is also from Linda Lee, with Rooney Kim Lazcano as the first author.

Few food scrap composts were included here.  If more had been, this (from #4) is what they would have found:

Total PFAAs in organic waste composts ranged from 31 to 75 ng/g for those containing food packaging with PFAS concentrations being lower in composts of only food and yard wastes (≤ 18.89 ng/g)

So take that soiled paper!

I would love for this hysteria to go away and for us to be able to focus on the amazing things biosolids do for our soils.  I for one, haven’t worn makeup in decades (hard to scratch your eyes when you are wearing mascara).  Maybe it is time to expose the Sierra Club to the cosmetics counter.