Pharmaceuticals and other unregulated chemicals are polluting Washington’s farmlands and waterways, and they are coming from our sewage. These chemicals pose serious risks to the environment, and we need new laws to regulate this ongoing pollution of our state.
Every year, thousands of tons of biosolids, a byproduct of the sewage treatment process, are applied to Washington’s farmlands. In 2020, 320,000 “wet tons” of biosolids, a byproduct of the sewage treatment process, were applied to Washington’s farmlands.
For decades, there have been concerns about the presence of chemicals in biosolids, and in April, Maine became the first state in the nation to ban the application of biosolids as fertilizer to farmland. The ban resulted from the presence of “forever chemicals” such as PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) that originate from cleaning products and other sources. Recent studies have also indicated that the application of biosolids to farmland may promote antibiotic resistance in bacteria and may be a significant source of microplastics that eventually find their way into lakes and streams.
In 2018, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency identified 352 chemicals of concern such as pharmaceuticals and personal care products in its report titled “EPA Unable to Assess the Impact of Hundreds of Unregulated Pollutants in Land-Applied Biosolids on Human Health and the Environment.”
We may never have enough data to assess the full impact of biosolids on food crops and human health, but given the growing concern over their safety, we can at least use our common sense and more strictly control their use for food crops and animal grazing as they have done in the United Kingdom and European Union.
The state Department of Ecology’s Solid Waste Management Program should more tightly regulate the biosolids permitting process or join Maine and prohibit the application of biosolids to land that is used for growing food crops and animal grazing. Stricter regulations could accelerate innovation that leads to the adoption of more sustainable sources of fertilizer such as composted food waste or to biosolids that are less hazardous.
Unregulated chemicals are also passing through wastewater treatment plants and into our waterways every second of the day. In 2016, The Seattle Times reported the presence of dozens of drugs in juvenile chinook salmon due to wastewater discharges. Most of these chemicals pass through the human body, and some are dumped into the sewer by people who are cleaning out their medicine cabinets. The contamination of waterways by unregulated chemicals is pervasive throughout the U.S. and much of the world. Human estrogens that pass through treatment plants have led to the feminization of fish populations, and the presence of pharmaceuticals such as ibuprofen is particularly problematic for communities that rely on chemically contaminated streams for their drinking water.
Despite the overwhelming evidence of these environmental impacts, Congress has not updated the Clean Water Act to regulate the discharge of these chemicals from wastewater, because it would be expensive for communities to comply. Until Congress does so, it is incumbent upon states to require wastewater treatment plants to use the industrial equivalent of a Brita filter or charcoal treatment to remove pharmaceuticals, PFAS and other chemicals of concern. To make this additional treatment less expensive, new evidence shows biosolids could be converted to charcoal and then used to remove chemicals from wastewater. Treatment technologies such as membrane bioreactors may also be part of the solution for reducing costs, and tighter regulations could spawn additional innovation.
We need our state lawmakers to create new laws for unregulated chemical pollutants, so they are no longer applied to farmlands or allowed into our waterways. We have the responsibility to protect our precious land and water resources, but we need the political will to act.