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– The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will make $4.8 million available to study the effect of potentially dangerous “forever chemicals” produced and used by companies such as 3M on farms and rural communities.

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known as PFAS, do not break down in nature. Decades of use in waterproofing and stain and heat resistance have left them spread across the nation’s drinking water, groundwater and soil. The EPA, which said PFAS can potentially cause cancer, as well as liver, immune system and reproductive problems, seeks grant applications to “help improve the agency’s understanding ... of PFAS on water quality and availability in rural communities and agricultural operations across the United States.”

EPA hopes to measure “PFAS occurrence, fate, and transport in water sources used by rural communities and agricultural operations.”

It also seeks data on PFAS treatments that will help remove PFAS from “small drinking water and wastewater systems,” as well as biosolids produced by wastewater plants and sold to farmers as fertilizer.

The grant announcement comes on the day a feature film on the topic of PFAS pollution opens in movie theaters across the nation. “Dark Waters” is an adaptation of the decadeslong crusade of Cincinnati trial lawyer Rob Bilott to get justice for clients — some of them farmers — hurt by PFAS production at a DuPont Teflon plant in Parkersburg, W.Va. Bilott found evidence that DuPont knew of the toxic risks of PFAS, but failed to share that information publicly. He eventually negotiated a $671 million settlement for his clients.

Three-time Academy Award nominee Mark Ruffalo, who plays Bilott in the movie, joined Bilott in the U.S. Capitol this week to lobby for PFAS regulation. Along with other activists, the pair will undertake a public awareness campaign to help Americans understand the prevalence and risk of PFAS.

Scientific research shows that PFAS accumulates in the blood streams of humans and animals.

In 2018, 3M settled a PFAS pollution suit with the Minnesota attorney general’s office for $850 million. The suit claimed 3M chemicals produced at a plant in the east metro portion of the Twin Cities contaminated water sources in the area. The Minnesota-based multinational maintains that PFAS have caused no harm to humans at their current environmental levels. The company still faces unresolved PFAS suits by several states and localities, as well as personal injury and shareholder suits based on documents that show 3M knew of toxic risks of PFAS, but failed to tell the public.

The Star Tribune reported Friday that the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency will expand the search for sites contaminated by PFAS to four counties, using a list of industries that have historically used the chemicals in their operation.

Besides drinking water, PFAS have also been detected in groundwater, soil and in food, owing to their presence in farm fertilizers used to grow crops for human and animal consumption.

Among the questions EPA hopes to answer with its newly funded research grants are:

“How do serial biosolids applications impact PFAS concentrations and accumulation over time?

“What are the impacts of factors such as soil type, crop type, and landscape traits, such as topography, that may influence PFAS concentration and accumulation?

“How do we treat and clean up PFAS from water, soil and biosolids used in agricultural settings?”

EPA is accepting grant applications through Feb. 11, 2020.

Jim Spencer • 202-662-7432