The B.C. government’s lawsuit over the health impact of so-called “forever chemicals” is now shining a questionable light on the province’s effort to also overturn one of Canada’s only bans on toxic sewage sludge applied to fields and forests.

"It is the ultimate hypocrisy," said Adam Olsen, an MLA for the B.C. Green party.

Sewage sludge, or biosolids, is the solid matter produced after sewage is dried and treated for bacterial contamination. While applying sewage waste to fields and forests is a cheap way to dispose of it, there is growing alarm the practice is polluting soils and drinking water with dangerous PFAS or per-fluoroakyll substances chemicals.

In the U.S. recently, Maine closed hundreds of farms because their soils were contaminated with PFAS from biosolids applied to fields decades ago. The crisis was large enough to push the state to ban outdoor application of biosolids entirely, joining countries like Germany.

PFAS are a class of thousands of chemicals used in everything from cosmetics to clothing to firefighting foam. They do not break down in nature, are now found in the blood of over 98 per cent of Canadians, and cause health problems like cancer and endocrine system disruptions.

The B.C. government’s lawsuit over the health impact of so-called “forever chemicals” is now shining a questionable light on the province’s effort to overturn one of Canada’s only bans on toxic sewage sludge applied to fields and forests.

Citing those risks, the B.C. government sued PFAS manufacturers in June for knowingly contaminating the environment and putting people's health at risk. But those government concerns do not appear to extend to the threat posed by PFAS contamination of biosolids.

However, since 2011, the province has also been pressuring the Capital Regional District (CRD), the regional government that includes Victoria, to overturn a ban on sewage sludge applied to district land over concerns it contains PFAS and other toxic chemicals, explained Philippe Lucas, a researcher and former Victoria city councillor who pushed for the ban.

According to a letter sent by B.C. Environment Minister George Heyman to the CRD's board in 2019 and seen by Canada's National Observer, the government required the district to "include land application [in] the long-term biosolids strategy…including but not limited to forestry (for example, fertilizer/soil conditioner), reclamation (for example, mines), landfill closure and agriculture." The letter was sent in the context of deliberations by the district about disposal of its biosolid waste.

Similar directives are routinely sent to the district, despite its ban on slathering sewage sludge on land, Lucas said.

The B.C. Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change said in a statement that it "supports beneficial reuse of treated biosolids as a means for restoring carbon to soils and avoiding methane formation and loss of landfill space."

"Under the provincial Organic Matter Recycling Regulation (OMRR), land application of biosolids must be done under the direction of a qualified professional, must be kept away from watercourses, and must be reviewed by the regional medical health officer, who may deny the application or set additional conditions."

Both Olsen and Lucas noted the OMRR does not test for PFAS or other new contaminants like microplastics.

However, the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change said it is "working to update the OMRR to provide more tools to increase sampling, monitoring, and reporting for contaminants…like PFAS in the environment and in biosolids."

Olsen slammed the province for failing to back its public fight against PFAS producers with tangible actions to minimize their threat to the province.

"Suing the companies got them the positive [news] hit…but they haven't done the basic things to ensure they're holding themselves to their own standards," he said.

Those “basic things” include testing sewage sludge for PFAS and other harmful chemicals, he said. Neither Canada nor B.C. conduct regular tests to determine if biosolids contain PFAS and other toxins, or they are contaminating farmland and drinking water sources.

Canadian farmers applied over 500,000 tonnes of sewage sludge to their fields in 2020, according to federal data. Canada's sewage waste is regularly monitored for potentially harmful chemicals like chlorine, heavy metals or toxic bacteria and viruses. It isn't checked for PFAS and a host of other "emerging" toxins like microplastics, according to the National Pollutant Release Inventory, a federal database that tracks pollution.

That could change. Last May, federal officials published an assessment of the health and environmental impacts of PFAS, examining them as a class of similar chemicals instead of one at a time. The decision means future restrictions on PFAS could be applied much more widely.

Moreover, in June, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, responsible for regulating biosolids federally, announced an interim standard prohibiting the importation and sale of heavily contaminated municipal biosolids. From October 2024, importers and producers of commercial biosolids will need a certificate of analysis from a third-party laboratory accredited for PFAS testing that shows their products comply with the new standard.

But back in B.C., Olsen said regardless of the federal government's next moves, the provincial government needs to back up its stated commitment to fighting PFAS contamination. That includes requiring more stringent testing of biosolids and finding safer ways to dispose of them, like incineration.

"We don't need the federal government to do anything more than what they're already doing. What we need is a minister of the environment that's prepared to act," he said.

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Unfortunately, incineration may be the best way to deal with contaminated biosolids. We do a lot of good by moving to tertiary sewage treatment, but that leads to a large volume of solid waste.

Lafarge has a contract to burn Victoria's biosolids in its cement kilns, so there is at least some usefullness to come out of contaminated solid waste products. The same applies to burning municipal garbage to produce power. But the contaminated ash must be dealt with in a responsible manner in a landfill, mainly with tight encapsulation. The emissions are another story and must be accounted for in the feasibility studies.

Banning synthetic fibres and fire retardants outright may not be possible, but surely some extensive research needs to be done on viable alternarives.