The dangers of per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) have been long known but only recently highlighted in the news. Lately, the group of chemicals that have been linked to reproductive and developmental problems, as well as cancer, are cropping up in soils, water, food, and feed on farms across the nation.
PFAS have become a relatively new and emerging concern among some farmers. Recent media stories include information about dairies in Maine, New Mexico, and Michigan, as well as farms in Colorado and Vermont being contaminated by the toxic substances.
The so-called “forever chemicals” aren’t farm-derived. Evidence suggests that they come from environmental contamination from aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF) used at nearby Air Force bases. They also come from biosolids contaminated with PFAS that state agencies authorized to be spread on farm fields. Other chemical contaminations have occurred in areas near industrial plants where PFAS are produced or used in production.
The synthetic chemicals do not readily break down and, therefore, accumulate in the environment. They are detectable and can also be found in our bodies.
PFAS repel oil and water and are temperature resistant; however, they are associated with some dangerous health effects even at very low levels. The health issues associated with PFAS exposure include cancer, liver damage, decreased fertility, and increased risk of thyroid disease and asthma.
To understand the occurrence of PFAS in foods, the FDA first had to develop reliable analytical methods to detect and measure them. That’s why they began testing for certain types of PFAS in milk and later expanded testing to seafood and cranberries.
PFAS migrated into farms’ groundwater from AFFF used on Air Force bases
In 2019, the Defense Department began investigative fieldwork for PFAS around current and former bases. From 1970, Air Force bases trained firefighters to extinguish aircraft fires using AFFF containing PFAS. But the repeated use and discharge of the foam led to the contaminants seeping into the groundwater and surrounding communities.
That is how farmers started getting unexpected visits from base officials informing them they should immediately stop drinking the water and that they would be supplied with bottled water.
What is worse, farmers also discovered that themselves and family members had high levels of PFAS in their blood. Their cattle and crops were also impacted.
One man’s testimony in front of a congressional oversight committee revealed how four generations who grew on farms in Colorado Springs drank contaminated water. 16 of his family members, 7 of them military veterans – not all blood relatives – who lived in contaminated areas for at least a decade were diagnosed with cancer. 10 died, among which several of them from kidney cancer.
On a dairy farm in New Mexico, these manmade chemicals impacted cows and calves and were found in high levels in milk. 7 of the 13 wells on the farm were contaminated by PFAS that entered the groundwater at the nearby Air Force base, potentially the whole time the owner had the dairy.
Because he couldn’t sell the milk, beef, the cows, the crops, or his property, the farm’s owner saw himself forced to dump tens of thousands of gallons of milk each day, kill all his livestock and let his 40 employees go.
PFAS from biosolids spread on crops
At farms in Maine and Vermont, sampling showed that the PFAS contaminating the drinking water and milk may have come from sewage sludge and septage that state agencies authorized, beginning in the 1980s, to be spread as fertilizer.
On a farm in Maine, PFAS contaminated cow’s milk, ruined farming, and hurt the farmer and his family. The farmer said that, in the 1980s, the state encouraged spreading sludge on farm fields because it was a great soil amendment that would help increase productivity and would save towns from paying substantial fees for disposal.
The sludge – called “biosolids” – is derived from wastewater treatment plants, where water from various uses – residential, commercial, industrial – is treated and separated into sludge and effluents. This is considered a resourceful way to recycle waste and help combat climate change via carbon sequestration.
But the benefits of biosolids production and reuse as soil amendments may not outweigh the PFAS risk. The primary concern is sludge sourced from a treatment plant accepting wastewater from a primary PFAS user.
Agencies in all 50 states authorized the practice even though biosolids were not tested for PFAS. Recently, in Vermont, 7 out of 34 land application sites were found to have PFAS levels above standards. As a result, the states are now asked to test for PFAS levels in biosolids before they are spread on fields.
Potential health effects of PFAS exposure
Are the affected crops being directly consumed by humans or used for animal feed? If a cow consumes high levels of PFAS in water, there is a possibility for the residue to be found in the milk. This is why some farmers are no longer able to sell the milk per state regulation.
The EPA published a Lifetime Health Advisory recommending that the concentration of PFAS in drinking water should not be greater than 70 parts per trillion. The 7 wells that tested positive for PFAS on the farm in New Mexico had at 20-300 times that level.
Once ingested, chemicals in the PFAS family remain in the organs for a long time. The assessment of whether or not there is a probable link between PFAS exposure and various diseases has been made by public health scientists. And the human studies addressing potential PFAS toxicity are still growing.
Although more recent studies have been conducted on general populations, older studies focused on groups of people who were occupationally exposed to PFAS. There are more than 50 epidemiological studies published from 2015 onwards, focusing on the most widespread PFAS in the environment: perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS).
The results from the many years of exposure and health studies show that PFOS exposure is associated with cases of primary bladder cancer and liver cancer, while high PFOA serum levels are linked to testicular, kidney, prostate, and ovarian cancers, as well as non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
Therefore, a farmer drinking water with .05 parts per billion of PFOA for longer than a year is more likely to get testicular or kidney cancer, thyroid disease, ulcerative colitis, and high cholesterol, according to court-appointed researchers.
Over the past several years, PFAS contamination has generated thousands of lawsuits filed by individuals, states, and other parties, seeking compensation for natural resource damage, or reimbursement of costs incurred, caused by the use of AFFF at Air Force bases. The major chemical companies producing PFAS – Dupont, Chemours, and 3M – have also been successfully held to account through personal injury lawsuits or by states and local entities.
About the author:
Miguel Leyva is a case manager at Atraxia Law, specializing in helping people who suffered devastating long-term health effects from exposure to toxic substances take the necessary steps required for filing a damages claim.