Third-generation dairy farmer Fred Stone lost his cows, his livelihood, and his plans for retirement after opening a letter on Nov. 3, 2016.
The letter, from his local water district, said a well providing his drinking water was contaminated—at twice the EPA’s health advisory limit—with some chemicals he’d never heard of and couldn’t pronounce.
Later tests showed his cows’ milk was contaminated too, with as much as 20 times the advisory limit. Stone had to stop selling his milk, and hasn’t sold any since.
The Department of Environmental Protection in Maine, where Stone and his wife, Laura, live, eventually concluded the chemicals were in fertilizer the Stones spread on their property years ago under a state-encouraged program for wastewater sludge.
It’s been 15 years since Stone spread any sludge. But time doesn’t matter when it comes to the compounds dubbed “forever chemicals,” used since the 1950s in everything from carpeting to firefighting foam.
“These cows, this land are our assets,” he said. “Now they’re worthless.”
‘Got To Be More Out There’
Practically nothing is known about the toxicity of the vast majority of chemicals collectively known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, or the extent to which they’re in people or the environment, said Christopher Lau, an Environmental Protection Agency research biologist. Even less may be known about how far they’ve reached into the food supply.
State and federal regulators and researchers have only recently begun to study their presence in agriculture. Stone’s farm is one of only three in the country known to have been shut down by the presence of PFAS.
But levels above the EPA’s advisory limit have been found in drinking water supplies serving 6 million people. More than 400 U.S. military bases have had known or potential releases. The chemicals have been found at more than 100 Superfund sites, according to information presented by Laurence Libelo, an environmental engineer at the EPA, at a recent conference.
“There’s got to be more out there. It’s almost impossible with something this widespread that we’ve found them all,” said Owen Duckworth, a North Carolina State University researcher. He’s investigating whether airborne PFAS released by Chemours Co. at its Fayetteville, N.C., plant were absorbed by produce grown in local gardens.
Research on a handful of the hundreds of types of PFAS shows they can affect growth, learning, and behavior of infants and older children; make it harder for a woman to get pregnant; interfere with the body’s natural hormones; increase cholesterol levels; and raise the risk of cancer, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
FDA: No Definitive Conclusions
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and U.S. Department of Agriculture declined repeated calls and emails requesting interviews about their ongoing investigations into PFAS in the food supply.
Chemours, which produces a range of fluorochemicals, declined to comment. 3M, which began to make the two most widely detected types of PFAS in the 1950s but no longer does, also declined to be interviewed or answer emailed questions. Instead, 3M pointed to recent FDA data on per- and polyfluroalkyl substances in food.
“The FDA does not have any indication that these substances are a human health concern, in other words a food safety risk in human food,” Ned Sharpless, acting FDA commissioner, said in June after the agency released that data.
Yet, the FDA tested less than 100 samples of food this year and smaller samples in previous years. Therefore it can’t make definitive conclusions, agency spokesman Peter Cassell said by email.
A 2001 3M food study found high levels of perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) or perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) in bread, apples, green beans, milk, and ground beef purchased from grocery stores in six cities in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee, according to a copy of the study that Robert Bilott, a partner with Taft Stettinius and Hollister LLP, provided the FDA.
Bilott’s decades-long work on behalf of plaintiffs exposed to PFAS included multidistrict litigation that in 2017 led the DuPont and Chemours Cos. to agree to pay a combined $670.7 million to settle personal injury lawsuits stemming from PFOA found in water supplies.
PFOS and PFOA are the two types of PFAS that fall under the EPA’s 70 parts per trillion advisory for exposure. The U.S. doesn’t have recommended or enforceable limits for PFAS in food.
‘Couldn’t Serve People Contaminants’
Venetucci Farm, a 192-acre community resource donated to and managed by the Pikes Peak Community Foundation in Colorado Springs, Colo., stopped growing produce or keeping egg-laying hens in 2016 after learning that PFAS were present in the food.
No one forced Venetucci Farm to stop selling vegetables to local residents, but “we had no idea what’s acceptable” levels of PFAS, said Sam Clark, the foundation’s special projects manager. “We couldn’t serve people contaminants.”
And Stone isn’t the only dairy farmer put out of business by PFAS. The cows of Art Schaap, owner of Highland Dairy in Clovis, N.M., drank water contaminated with the chemicals from the nearby Cannon Air Force Base.
Stone and Schaap may be the extent of the problem, said Clay Detlefsen, senior vice president of regulatory and environmental affairs and staff counsel for the National Milk Producers Federation. Their two stories illustrate how effectively the dairy supply is able to immediately stop any potential threat, Detlefsen said.
But there are more than 37,000 dairy farms in the U.S., according to the Agriculture Department. Dairies and other farms may learn a lot from Michigan’s extensive efforts to identify by year-end PFAS hot spots where high concentrations of the chemicals are found in land or water, Detlefsen said.
Even if agricultural sites are identified as contaminated with PFAS, however, there are many questions yet to be answered before knowing whether those levels are a concern, he said.
11 Million Olympic Pools
The EPA estimates about 600 PFAS are used in commerce, but 4,730 exist, according to the international Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
The production of so many goods using PFAS means the chemicals get released up factory smokestacks and into nearby waterways, said Norm Labbe, who recently retired as superintendent of the Kennebunk, Kennebunkport, and Wells Water District that notified Stone about the PFAS in his farm’s well. They’re put in landfills and composted, found in household dust, and flushed down drainpipes where they end up in sludge, or “biosolids,” like what Stone spread on his family’s farm, Labbe said.
The amount of PFAS detected in samples of U.S. biosolids from 2001 was enough to make approximately 11 million Olympic-sized pools of water exceed the EPA’s health advisory limit, said Rolf Halden, an Arizona State University professor. “That’s twice the mass of contamination needed to render all of the water presently in Lake Powell non-potable,” he said, referring to the nation’s second-largest water reservoir that straddles the Utah and Arizona border.
Halden coauthored a 2013 study investigating PFAS in biosolids from the 2001 EPA National Sewage Sludge Survey.
Once in the environment, “they just don’t break down,” said Matt Simcik, an associate environmental health professor at the University of Minnesota. Sunlight, enzymes, and bacteria in the environment can’t do more than turn them into other forms of PFAS.
The one common characteristic all PFAS share is having at least one atom of carbon bound to a fluorine atom, making it “the strongest and shortest bond in nature,” said Jennifer Field, an environmental toxicologist from Oregon State University. “This appears to be an impenetrable fortress.”
The human body gets rids of some PFAS within a few hours, but others deposit in organs or circulate in the blood for years, the EPA’s Lau said. “These chemicals love to bind to protein, any type of protein,” he said during a recent Texas A&M University webinar.
That’s where they emerge as a threat in the food supply.
“Various people have asked me, can we just filter the milk to get rid of the PFAS,” said Patrick MacRoy, deputy director of the nonprofit Environmental Health Strategy Center. “The answer is no.”
“You’d filter out the protein, and everything that makes milk milk in the process,” said MacRoy, whose Maine-based organization brought attention to Stone’s problems. “You would end up with just water.”
He also called the use of PFAS in compostable packaging “a striking, double-whammy of a problem.” The chemicals may directly contaminate food and then, when the packaging is composted, infuse crops with PFAS, he said.
‘Do Not Eat’ Advisories
Michigan has the most known PFAS-contaminated sites in the nation, likely because it has the most intensive sampling program. It began to issue “do not eat” advisories for fish in 2010, and for deer in 2018, both after finding high levels of PFOS, said Kay Fritz, a toxicologist with the state’s Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.
State food safety officials began asking three questions about these chemicals, Fritz said:
- Do plants take up PFAS from contaminated soil or water?
- Do food animals absorb PFAS from contaminated feed or water?
- Could PFAS be found in milk or eggs?
“The scientific literature says yes” to all three, Fritz said during a June PFAS conference. “There are no federal standards for safe levels in food. Best practice is to reduce exposure wherever possible.”
Federal Policies Sought
Attorneys general from 20 states, the District of Columbia, and Guam detailed actions they’d like the EPA to take in a July 30 letter sent to congressional leaders. States also want the FDA and the USDA involved.
“We join the broader food and consumer goods industry in encouraging federal regulators to establish clear and consistent guidelines around PFAS in consumer products,” said John Bennett, president of Oakhurst, a New England dairy brand that had bought Stone’s milk for more than two decades. “We are frustrated with the inconsistencies in approach related to PFAS.”
Jackie Farwell, a spokeswoman for Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services, also said inconsistent rules confuse the public, and called for the FDA to develop action levels for PFAS in foods such as milk, beef, and fish.
“Maine is, to our knowledge, the only state that has formally developed an action level for milk,” Farwell said. The action levels apply to PFOS, the specific perfluorinated chemical found in high concentrations in the milk from Stone’s farm.
In February, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler issued a memo directing agency researchers to investigate questions such as the extent to which PFAS are present in agricultural water, land, plants, and animals.
The federal government needs to better understand how widespread the chemicals are in the food supply, and assess potential harm to people and wildlife, said Christopher P. Higgins, a Colorado School of Mines professor whose research team found the PFAS contamination on the Venetucci farm.
States, Companies Stepping Up
In the absence of federal regulation, states like Maine and Washington have passed legislation banning PFAS in food packaging, provided safer alternatives can be found.
And Ahold Delhaize USA, the parent company of grocery chains Food Lion, Giant Food and Stop & Stop, said Sept. 19 that it would ban PFAS packaging voluntarily for its brands, and verify the chemicals’ elimination through testing.
The Department of Defense could help by providing farmers clean water when its military sites contaminated local supplies, said MacRoy, from the Environmental Health Strategy Center. Requiring the Pentagon to do that is one of dozens of PFAS policies Congress is debating.
No Don Quixote
The options for farmers are limited.
Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection discussed removing and replacing the PFAS-contaminated soil at the Stones’ farm but the cost “could easily exceed $25 million,” spokesman David Madore said. Clean soil can’t simply be put on top of the contaminated dirt: Rain would mobilize the chemicals, which would run downhill onto other land, he said.
“Mr. Stone did nothing wrong,” Labbe, the former local water superintendent, said. “He was just another struggling farmer who was looking to support his family, and he had an opportunity to use low cost fertilizer, which was offered to him and approved by the agencies.”
Stone hasn’t earned income from his farm since 2016. Meanwhile, the Stones have spent $21,000 installing a carbon filter for their home and dairy. That filter costs $5,000 a year to maintain.
He purchased new cows and feed from out-of-state land where sludge had never been applied, and spent an “enormous amount of money” testing milk and water to see if the farm could get its dairy license back. Things looked hopeful in late 2018 and early this year, as the PFAS numbers went down. But new cows, new feed, and filtered water couldn’t keep the cows clean. On March 29, Oakhurst, the dairy brand, finally fully terminated its relationship with Stone.
It’s uncomfortable being the first farm known to have been contaminated with PFAS from sludge, rather than from a clearly identified industrial, military, or other facility, said Stone.
“Nowhere along the way here did we want to play Don Quixote,” he said. “I’d just like to be left. Milk my cows and be left the hell alone and let me go about my life.
“But I guess that’s not going to happen now.”
—With assistance from Andrew Ballard, Emily C. Dooley, Stephen Joyce, Chris Marr, David Schultz, and Paul Shukovsky.