PFAS in Sewage Sludge and The Organic Standard

PFAS in Sewage Sludge and The Organic Standard

While municipalities often boast the merits growing food with sewage sludge (also known as biosolids), the FDA has just done three studies showing a problem with our food being contaminated with with perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl, some with very high levels.

Colin O’Neil & David Andrews from EWG wrote last week in PFAS Central that “A recent investigation by the Food and Drug Administration found toxic per- and poly- fluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, in food, including meat, seafood and dairy products; sweet potatoes; pineapples; leafy greens, and chocolate cake with icing.” [1].

Where are these PFAS coming from and does the organic standard protect us from these chemicals?

Where do PFAS come from?

Exposure from PFAS in humans are thought to originate from agricultural products grown with sewage sludge, also called biosolidsfrom food packaging and from drinking water polluted with these chemicals.

<< The FDA detected PFOS in approximately half of the meat and seafood products; PFPeA in chocolate milk and high levels in chocolate cake with icing; PFBA in pineapple; and PFHxS in sweet potato. >> [2]

They are also used in various commercial products. The EPA has identified more than 600 chemically similar PFAS compounds in active commercial use.

<<Almost half of the seven million tons of sewage sludge generated in the U.S. every year are applied to land, including on farm fields. >>  [1].

Even in Canada municipalities recycle sewage sludge into agricultural products [ref].

Not all contamination came from agriculture — contaminated chocolate icing was thought to originate from another source: << 17,640 parts per trillion (ppt) of perfluoro-n-pentanoic acid (PFPeA) in chocolate cake with icing. These levels suggest that the cake was contaminated from the intentional use of the chemical to greaseproof paper that contacted the cake rather than from an environmental source. >> [ref]

What are PFAS?

These are molecules containing multiple (13 to 17) fluorine atoms along with ~10 other basic atoms like carbon, oxygen and hydrogen. Unfortunately these man-made chemicals do not break down in nature; they are bio-resistant[3][4] and are associated with a long list of health issues.

  • PFAS is the group of per- and poly- fluoroalkyl substances. It includes man-made chemicals like PFOA, PFOS, GenX, and many others [ref].
  • FFOS is a short for Perfluorooctanesulfonic acid. They are often used as a surfactant, or more precisely fluorosurfactant.
  • PFOA are also known as Perfluorooctanoic acid and also affectionately known as C8. They are also fluorosurfactants. They are used among other things in the fabrication of cookware and strain-resistant carpets, microwave popcorn bags, some brands of dental-floss, floor wax, fire fighting foam and many more items. [5][6]

Although some anti-stick cookware are now manufactured without PFOA, as previously said, the EPA has identified more than 600 chemically similar PFAS compounds in active commercial use but has set no legal limits or health advisories for those chemicals in water, air or consumer products[2]. It might be just like when they replaced BPA with BPS and now label things as “BPA free”.

What are the Health Risks of PFAS

PFAS have been associated with cancer, reproductive harm, developmental harm, high cholesterol, damage to the immune system, hormone disruption, and liver and kidney damage.

Remember the documentary on PFOA and birth defects in children of mothers working in a Teflon factory?


Watch it here.

Some scientists who work with biosolids (sewage sludge), with all their wisdom and lack of conflict of interests, mention that it is safe and useful.

<< Scientists say that the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that sludge is safe and useful. >> [7].

Recall when they found PFOA (aka C8) in water near DuPont factory. DuPont mentioned in a letter to residents that C8 was found in public water but according to their standards it wasn’t harmful [3].

Immune Effects

If you take time to read the chapter 2 of the ATSDR Toxicological Profile for Perfluoroalkyls document, you will see that perfluoroalyls have been shown to decrease antibody response to vaccines. One might pose the hypothesis that PFAS are causing an increase in vaccine-preventable diseases worldwide.

<< Immune effects. Evidence is suggestive of a link between serum PFOA, PFOS, PFHxS, and PFDeA levels and decreased antibody responses to vaccines. A possible link between serum PFOA levels and increased risk of asthma diagnosis has also been found >> [ref]

Does Organic Agriculture Allows Sewage Sludge?

Luckily if you have been eating organic certified food, sewage sludge is not only prohibited but frowned upon by organic farmers.

<< In addition, USDA organic standards require that food cannot be grown in sewage sludge. >> [8]

<< Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering may not be used. >> [9]

<< [Organic farmers] resolutely oppose allowing its use under the final organic standards rule. >> [10]

In 1997 the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency tried to include a proposition to allow “high quality biosolids” (i.e., sewage sludge) to be used in organic food production [10]. Fortunately it did not pass and today the USDA organic standard still rejects sewage. Note that other countries have their own organic regulations, that often surpasses in safety the United State one.

Food for Thoughts

One problem with organic agriculture is that large agro-companies are often organic producers themselves. Some are actively lobbying to dilute the organic standard, and at the same time when they succeed, other influential players – maybe even the same shareholders – uses these deregulation to “expose” that the organic standard does not protect consumers better, failing to mention how it was lobbying that caused the USDA Organic Standard to have these loopholes in the first place.


1. 2019,

2. 2019,

3. 2018,



6. 2019,

7. 2014,



10. 1998,

Other References Consulted

Hyperlinks were consulted in June 2019 unless otherwise noted.