Soil and water

Maine Voices: National standards for PFAS in foods are desperately needed

News of PFAS “chemicals forever” contamination in Maine has been in the news recently.

The impact of the spread of PFAS-containing sludge on Maine farmland emerged as a local food security threat in 2019 when contamination shut down a dairy farm in Arundel. Since then, ongoing research has revealed the pervasive nature of PFAS in Maine, while affirming the chemicals’ persistence in the environment and their toxicity to human health. While this information may seem overwhelming, the state and our farmers are showing tremendous leadership despite a lack of action at the federal level.

The state sludge and sludge site map can be used to better understand the extent of PFAS contamination, but we need to understand the shortcomings of the tool. The map, which is updated as sites are identified, shows permitted sites — not landspreading locations — and a permit does not guarantee that landspreading has taken place.

Sites that apply biosolids containing industrial waste are of greatest concern. Analysis of water, soil and agricultural products is necessary to assess contamination in an area. It is also important to remember that contamination of farms is largely an inherited legacy resulting from land application carried out decades ago. Unfortunately, sludge is still prevalent today and to end this practice and further limit PFAS contamination, the Legislature should pass GL 1911.

The state is currently identifying and testing sites based on a tiered system for potential contamination, but the process will take years. Meanwhile, Maine farms are on the front lines of ensuring food security. Rather than wait, many farmers test themselves for PFAS contamination. It is both expensive and risky.

There are no federal tolerances for PFAS levels in foods, so the state develops crop-by-crop thresholds. This means that farmers who learn that their crops, land and/or water have high levels of PFAS do not have many resources to determine the best next step. Despite this, farmers are demonstrating that they have the best interests of the wider community at heart by striving to ensure a secure food supply.

PFAS contamination in agriculture is not specific to Maine – 32 states are currently weighing PFAS-related bills and late last month beef was recalled in Michigan for containing high levels of PFAS – and Most of us are exposed to PFAS every day through everyday products, including personal care items, water-repellent clothing, stain-resistant furniture and carpets, and grease-resistant food packaging. High levels of PFAS in the body are the result of consumption over time, not a single incident, and contaminated drinking water is the primary cause for concern. New research suggests that a diverse diet is likely to reduce exposure, as different cultures absorb varying levels of PFAS.

We have seen many examples of farms proactively testing and voluntarily removing products from distribution, even though they are not required to do so in the absence of established food safety standards. These farmers are showing immense courage and initiative in the face of the threat to the survival of their businesses. They should be welcomed with gratitude and compassion. The emotional toll of learning not only about the contamination of the land and the resulting threat to their livelihoods, but also their own health and well-being cannot be underestimated.

To support our farmers, we must all step up and demand federal action to set national tolerance levels for PFAS in foods, modify national agricultural programs to help farmers, and develop legislation to prevent future contamination while holding manufacturers responsible. Federal action will take time, so we need Gov. Janet Mills’ administration to prioritize and increase state resources for testing, lost revenue for agricultural businesses, advice and infrastructure to ‘mitigation.

As they prepare for another growing season, Maine farmers are taking action to ensure we have the most secure food supply in the country. Let us trust them, thank them and support them for their leadership.

— Special for the Press Herald

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