In the absence of federal action, state governments are struggling to address widespread Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) contamination of water, soils and food. PFAS are a group of man-made chemicals that includes PFOA, PFOS, GenX and many other chemicals (up to 5,000 variations). Sources of PFAS contamination are many because these chemicals are ubiquitous. They are found in foam fire suppressants and have heavily contaminated military bases, airports, municipal fire departments and other locations where firefighting foams have been used or stored. They are in various industrial wastes, including from paper, textile and tannery operations, and are used in the manufacture of non-stick cookware. They are used to make rain and stain-repellent clothing treatments such as Scotchguard and Gore-Tex, car and floor waxes and even some dental floss. PFAS is also showing up in food and compost through PFAS-containing food packaging and other contamination sources, not all of them well understood, as leaked data from the Food and Drug Administration revealed.
PFAS are especially persistent in the environment, meaning they don't break down for years and can bioaccumulate in both humans and farm animals. For this reason, they have been called “forever chemicals.” These chemicals are also extremely mobile, traveling easily through soils and groundwater. This family of chemicals can also break down in ways that essentially create ongoing new sources of PFAS substances with characteristics similar to PFOA and PFOS, the now discontinued PFAS compounds featured in the new thriller Dark Waters. According to the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ASTDR), exposure to certain PFAS may affect growth, learning and behavior of infants and older children, cause endocrine disruption, increase the risk of cancer and have other health impacts.
In Maine, PFAS issues have come to the fore largely due to the discovery of contamination at the 100-year old Stoneridge Farm, where sewage sludge and other wastes were spread as fertilizer over decades. The contamination of farmer Fred Stone’s drinking water, soils and dairy cows was a chance discovery after the local water treatment plant found high levels of PFAS in a monitoring well adjacent to Stone’s property. Unable to sell his milk, with the property too contaminated to permanently clean up with existing resources and know-how, Stone is now out of business.
Maine is not the only state where farms have been contaminated by PFAS and had to shut down. PFAS contamination has significantly harmed or shut down farming operations in Colorado, New Mexico, Michigan and Wisconsin, and it is likely that there are many more farms across the country that will be found to be contaminated if tested. That’s because sewage treatment sludge (euphemistically called “biosolids” by wastewater treatment and composting operations) has for decades been used throughout the country on agricultural fields as fertilizer, with the approval of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and state environmental agencies.
Maine has temporarily halted all land spreading of sewage and composted sludge and has begun a planning process through a high-level task force established by the governor to identify known and suspected PFAS contamination sources, data gaps, and potential health and economic impacts of contamination on farms and the agricultural economy. As part of this process, the State is testing all sludge from sewage treatment plants. If the results in Maine are representative of other states, farmers and consumers throughout the country have cause to be worried. Virtually all sludge has tested positive for PFOA and/or PFOS, generally two to three times the State’s screening level of 50 parts per trillion (ppt), with some results as high as 20 times this level. Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has tested groundwater, surface water and soil, as well as hay, feed and manure from seven sludge spreading sites. PFAS showed up in all except the feed. The bottom line is that only a fraction of potentially contaminated sites (such as hundreds of closed unlined municipal landfills) have been tested, and most that have been tested showed contamination, some at very high levels not only in leachate but also in groundwater.
Even if you grow your own vegetables, you could still be at risk. Sewage treatment plants around the country have developed composting operations that sell or give away composted fertilizer to home gardeners. Once thought to be an environmentally sound practice benefiting everyone, some of this compost has been found to be contaminated with PFAS including in Alaska and Washington state.
Because of IATP’s emphasis on agricultural impacts and food and farm policy, IATP’s Senior Attorney Sharon Treat has been participating in the Maine PFAS Task Force meetings since it commenced in May. On December 6, 2019 we submitted comments on the Task Force’s draft final report. In our comments, we focused especially on the recommendations related to agriculture, including the need to: (1) expand data collection and assessment, including future testing of milk and other agricultural products; (2) review historic records; (3) continue scientific study of plant and animal uptake; (4) establish PFAS standards for food; and (5) secure additional funding to assist farmers who face financial hardship from lost production caused by PFAS contamination. We found that these recommendations, while a good start, were missing specificity, timelines and some key recommendations that we had expected would be part of the report.
In particular, we are disappointed that the report did not call for establishing a State Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) to protect health including that of vulnerable populations. The decision not to act but to instead wait for the federal government to act risks public health and limits the State’s legal authority to act on PFAS. Maine agency staff repeatedly stated in Task Force meetings that without an enforceable drinking water standard their efforts to collect data, require testing and cleanup, bring legal actions and establish food safety standards have been hindered. The failure to recommend establishing an MCL makes Maine an outlier in the region, where Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont are all acting to set a state MCL. These and other states establishing their own MCLs have rejected the EPA guidance as insufficiently protective and are setting significantly stricter standards. They have also sought to address additional PFAS compounds beyond the already phased out (in the U.S.) PFOA and PFOS.
For example, Vermont plans to test for 18 PFAS compounds in the environment, and drinking water programs must ensure levels of five PFAS contaminants – PFOA, PFOS, PFHxS, PFHpA and PFNA –are below a combined 20 ppt. New Hampshire “using the most recent and best science available” has finalized drinking water standards that are intended to be protective for the most sensitive populations over a lifetime of exposure. The New Hampshire MCLs are: PFOA, 12 ppt; PFOS, 15 ppt; PFHxS, 18 ppt; and PFNA, 11 ppt. Other states adopting standards well below 70 ppt for several PFAS compounds include Massachusetts, Minnesota, Michigan, New Jersey, New York and Washington.
Instead, the Task Force decided to defer to the federal government to set an MCL – an action that is highly unlikely to occur any time soon or to sufficiently protect public health. The EPA has been dragging its feet on PFAS standards and cleanup for years. Despite a recent flurry of media releases from EPA touting its PFAS plan – including last week’s announcement the agency is taking steps to establish a drinking water standard – even under the best of circumstances its proposal is likely years from going into effect. And we are not facing the best of circumstances. EPA’s early-stage proposal is now sitting in the Office of Management and Budget awaiting approval before it can proceed. This is the same bottleneck agency that is holding up $10 million in funds appropriated by Congress in 2018 for the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention to study PFAS and health. These actions are part of a pattern across federal agencies right now. The FDA tried to keep secret its own studies showing PFAS contamination of food including milk, meat and produce. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which the report also looks to for action on PFAS, is in the process of effectively dismantling many of its research activities and other programs. In any event, even if an EPA standard were imminent, the agency proposes to stick with its outdated and insufficiently protective 70 ppt guidance and to set limits for only two of the hundreds of PFAS chemicals.
Maine’s PFAS Task Force will meet on December 18, 2019 to finalize its report. We are hopeful that the Task Force will adopt IATP’s recommendations on setting drinking water standards and on other issues, including making the moratorium on sludge spreading permanent and adopting an ongoing funding source to pay for remediation and to assist farmers in transitioning away from biosolids as fertilizer.