EPA to Fund Studies of Toxic ‘Forever Chemicals’ in Agriculture

Environmental regulators announced new grants to help researchers investigate how harmful PFAS affect plants and animals in agricultural environments.

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Cilantro grows on farmland near San Luis Obispo Regional Airport in California that has been irrigated with well water contaminated with high levels of PFAS chemicals from firefighting foam that for years was used in training exercises at the airport in August. Credit: Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
Cilantro grows in August on farmland near San Luis Obispo Regional Airport in California that has been irrigated with well water contaminated with high levels of PFAS chemicals from firefighting foam that for years was used in training exercises at the airport. Credit: Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

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The Environmental Protection Agency announced on Thursday $8 million in new research funding to understand how the toxic compounds known as “forever chemicals” are affecting plants and animals in agricultural, rural and tribal communities.

The agency announced the new funds as part of an effort to develop ways to identify and mitigate exposure pathways to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, a class of more than 12,000 chemicals known as PFAS. These nearly indestructible chemicals, which do not exist in nature, accumulate in the environment and in living things, including people. They contaminate air, soil and waterways and have been detected in the blood of nearly every person tested in the United States.

The agency is offering researchers five $1.6 million grants over four years. The grants aim to support research that advances the EPA’s mission to protect human health and the environment as part of its Science to Achieve Results program. 

“It is just a drop in the bucket for what is needed,” said Linda Lee, a professor of environmental chemistry at Purdue University. But it’s a good signal to the research community about the need for a better understanding of PFAS contamination to design effective management and mitigation strategies, she added.


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PFAS are highly valued in industrial, commercial and consumer applications for their unique ability to resist stains, water and grease. They’ve been in widespread use since the 1940s and have been added to hundreds of consumer products, including outdoor gear, stain-resistant furniture and carpets, nonstick cookware, food packaging, cosmetics and dental floss. Exposure to these ubiquitous chemicals affects nearly every system in the body and has been linked to cancer, impaired immune function, endocrine system disruption, birth defects and other serious conditions. 

The EPA aims to award projects that shed light on how PFAS move through soil, water, plants and animals in agricultural environments to reduce human PFAS exposure through the food supply and promote farm viability. 

It’s noteworthy that EPA is calling for research that focuses on supporting cost-effective strategies to mitigate PFAS on farms with high volumes of water or soil but low concentrations of the chemicals, Lee said.

Many of the harmful effects associated with PFAS exposure have been detected at low doses.

The chemicals may concentrate through the food system as they cycle between soil, water, plants and animals, said grants project officer Donald Brooks on Thursday in a webinar for researchers interested in applying for funds. 

Applicants should link their research projects with relevant goals and objectives identified in the EPA Strategic Plan, Brooks said. The EPA’s Strategic Plan includes a new goal “focused solely on addressing climate change and an unprecedented goal to advance environmental justice and civil rights.” 

Brooks called the agency’s request for proposals to research PFAS and identify strategies to manage the contaminants in sustainable and practical ways “really important.”

Researchers have until December 6 to submit their proposals.

PFAS can enter the environment throughout the chemicals’ life cycle. They escape into the air and wastewater from the companies that manufacture them. They migrate from treated products in homes and leach into soil when thrown into landfills. They concentrate in soil and water on and around military and civilian airports, where firefighting foams that contain PFAS are used to extinguish flames in accidents and training exercises.

For years, oil and gas companies legally pumped PFAS into the ground to aid drilling and fracking operations, according to a 2021 report from Physicians for Social Responsibility. The report also revealed that the EPA sanctioned oil companies’ use of the chemicals to facilitate extraction, despite agency scientists’ concerns about the compounds’ toxicity and potential to migrate from wells into groundwater. 

Until recently, regulators have focused primarily on PFAS contamination of drinking water. At least 45 percent of tap water supplies across the country are polluted with one or more types of PFAS, researchers with the U.S. Geological Survey reported in July.

And, according to an analysis from the nonprofit Environmental Working Group last year, PFAS may contaminate close to 20 million acres of U.S. farmland. Most water treatment processes aren’t designed to remove PFAS. That means farmers may be inadvertently dousing their fields with PFAS when they fertilize their crops with sewage sludge, or biosolids, from treated wastewater, the group found. 

Livestock are exposed to the chemicals through tainted water and feed, including grazing crops. Scientists have measured the compounds in cattle, goats, pigs and chickens as well as in agricultural crops, including potatoes, cereals, fruits and leafy greens. 

The EPA only recently began to regulate two of the most well-studied PFAS compounds in drinking water. The agency’s call for research proposals reflects increasing recognition that fertilizing farmlands with biosolids could pose a threat to the food system.

“There is lots of evidence for PFAS contamination in biosolids,” said Linda Birnbaum, former director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and scholar in residence at Duke University. But it’s unclear how this is affecting specific communities, she said.

Birnbaum, who has studied PFAS for decades, applauds the agency’s requirement to engage tribal or community-based organizations in research goals, which she called “absolutely essential” for environmental health research. For example, many Indigenous communities follow unique practices and may ingest certain foods as part of their culture, she said.

And because many tribal communities farm salmon, oysters and other seafood, the agency’s focus on PFAS contamination in aquaculture is particularly important.

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Only federally recognized tribes are eligible to apply for the grants, according to the EPA’s call for proposals. But there are some 400 tribes that are not federally recognized, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, with some 55 unrecognized tribes in California alone. 

EPA’s eligibility officer, Ron Josephson, said he thought unrecognized tribes might be able to qualify if they were a nonprofit organization.

Beyond offering funds to study and clean up widespread PFAS contamination across the nation’s farms, Birnbaum and a group of international experts called on regulators to manage these immortal chemicals as a class in a 2020 commentary published in Environmental Science and Technology Letters. 

“Without effective risk management action around the entire class of PFAS,” the researchers warned, “these chemicals will continue to accumulate and cause harm to human health and ecosystems for generations to come.”

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