The ag industry is paying more attention to a group of highly persistent chemicals known as PFAS, short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, which have been found in drinking water and groundwater throughout the United States.

The group of more than 9,000 compounds are known as “forever chemicals” because of their long half-lives and ability to remain in soil, water and tissue without breaking down. “One of the reasons why scientists are highly concerned about this class of chemicals is there are thousands of them,” says Natural Resources Defense Council scientist Anna Reade. “They don't go away once we produce them. And they're very hard to contain, once they're used.”

“Eventually, throughout their lifecycle, they will contaminate our environment and our food supply and eventually us,” she said.

Testing by the Food and Drug Administration has so far not identified human health risks in the food supply, although FDA is expanding testing.

“Research has shown that PFAS contamination in the environment where food is grown or produced does not necessarily mean the food will contain detectable levels of PFAS,” the agency said in a question-and-answer document posted online in October. “This is because the amount of PFAS taken up by foods depends on many factors, including the specific type of PFAS and type of food.”

Anna Reade

Anna Reade, NRDC

However, high levels of PFAS have shut down three dairies in Maine and New Mexico and forced another dairy in New Mexico to filter the water it uses. The dairy industry is keeping a close eye on the issue and looking to the federal government for direction in the areas of testing and standards.

Clay Detlefsen, senior vice president of regulatory and environmental affairs and staff counsel at the National Milk Producers Federation, says he’s not “alarmed” by reports about the chemicals, but is “a bit apprehensive.”

“I have to keep on telling myself this is really a drinking water issue,” Detlefsen said. “And there's literally thousands of water sources in the United States that are contaminated with PFAS that need to be dealt with. It will spill over into the food supply in some cases, but primarily, this is a drinking water issue that we've got to fix in this country.”

“There's a lot of research going on, which is trying to pin things down a bit better,” he said. “What's the uptake in an animal if it's drinking the water? Where does it go? How long does it take to clear an animal? If the source of the contamination is through crops, what crops take it up? We’ve got way more questions than answers.”

Joseph Scimeca, senior vice president for regulatory & scientific affairs at the International Dairy Foods Association, told Agri-Pulse in a written statement IDFA is monitoring the situation but does not have a formal set of PFAS legislative or regulatory priorities. "That’s because to date, all retail sampling of milk or milk products has found that they have no or very low detectable levels of PFAS," he said.

"We share FDA’s position that there are no health or safety concerns for retail dairy foods and we encourage regulators and lawmakers to focus on the real issue — which is non-food related sources of PFAS in our environment," Scimeca said. "We should not allow the burden of this issue to be unfairly shifted onto the backs of farmers or food producers."

“I think everybody's willing to admit, yes, we need to address this,” said Adam Brock, director of food safety and quality and regulatory compliance for Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin, the checkoff-funded marketing and promotion arm for the state’s dairy operations. “My fear is, I don't want these farms and farmers to go out of business.”

“It’s not just dairy,” he added. “We're talking carpet manufacturing, rugs, mining operations —  everybody's got it.” Brock is pushing for collaborative, public-private partnerships that can come up with ways to remediate the chemicals, which are fiercely resistant to breakdown, even at high heat.

EPA says certain PFAS chemicals are no longer manufactured in the U.S., including the two that have been “most extensively produced and studied,” PFOA and PFOS. However, PFAS are imported and can be found in food packaging, commercial household products including stain- and water-repellent fabrics and nonstick products such as Teflon, production facilities, and “living organisms, including fish, animals and humans, where PFAS have the ability to build up and persist over time,” EPA says.

Concerns revolve around the effects on human health. “There is evidence that exposure to PFAS can lead to adverse health outcomes in humans,” EPA says. “Studies indicate that PFOA and PFOS can cause reproductive and developmental, liver and kidney, and immunological effects in laboratory animals.”

The Biden administration is expected to designate PFAS as a hazardous substance, meaning it would be regulated under the Superfund law, and set limits for the substances in drinking water, according to then-candidate Joe Biden’s environmental justice plan. Citing data collected by the Environmental Working Group, Biden’s plan says, “it is estimated that up to 110 million American’s drinking water could be contaminated with PFAS.”

“I don't want to say I'm on the alarmist side,” Brock says. “But I don't want to see it devastate farmers, because it's not something they had control over. They weren’t producing it.” 

"You could potentially have farms be declared Superfund sites," Detlefsen said. "That just opens an awful can of worms."

Clay Detlefsen

Clay Detlefsen, NMPF

Two well-identified sources are firefighting foam and sewage sludge, or biosolids, which can be spread on farmers’ fields as fertilizer. The PFAS contamination that caused a New Mexico dairy farm to go out of business has been linked to the use of firefighting foam at Cannon Air Force Base in Curry County, and litigation led by New Mexico is proceeding against the Defense Department.

“The dangerous levels of PFAS detected at Cannon and Holloman [air force bases] are shocking and found to be migrating into offsite public and private wells that provide drinking water and livestock and irrigation water to the surrounding communities,” the state said in a recent court filing that seeks to have the case remanded from South Carolina, where multi-district litigation is proceeding, to New Mexico.

And in Maine, the source of PFAS on two dairy farms that were forced out of business was sewage sludge applied to fields. At least one of the farmers, Fred Stone, is pursuing legal action, said Patrick MacRoy, deputy director of Defend Our Health in Maine.

He said state testing showed 90% of biosolids tested by sewer districts failed a screening test for PFAS. A study that looked at the issue nationally estimated “significant loading [of PFAS] to U.S. soils [that] further increases concern about groundwater and surface water contamination.” That study found 10 of 13 PFAS compounds, including PFOA and PFOS, were consistently detected in all biosolids samples.

Maine has identified farms where suspect sludge was applied but has yet to test them for PFAS, MacRoy said.

“Folks like Fred Stone were told that they're basically doing a civic service by using the sludge,” MacRoy said. “It’s both providing a benefit to them and it's helping sewer districts deal with the waste in an affordable and responsible way. They were assured it was safe, it was tested, and all was good. And then 20 years later, what do you know, it was problematic, and you've lost your livelihood, sorry.”

MacRoy says the chemical industry that manufactured the compounds should have to compensate farmers such as Stone.

With the lack of an overall solution, MacRoy and Detlefsen both advise farmers not to apply biosolids to their fields. NRDC’s Reade agrees, saying “we should be avoiding applying highly contaminated biosolids to agricultural fields that are going to contaminate that land for an indefinite period of time.”

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Farmers need to not just be aware of the problem, but be proactive in addressing it, say legal experts who have studied the issue. ‘You're starting to see all the warning signs that this is going to be a problem for ag producers,” says Ally Cunningham, an attorney at Lathrop GPM in Kansas City, Mo., who works on environmental litigation.

“We haven't seen litigation on the ag side yet,” she said, but warns, “I think it's probably coming,” as federal agencies step up efforts on testing standards and regulatory limits for PFAS “and people just generally become more familiar with PFAS.”  

Another Lathrop GPM attorney, Alexandra Roje, says once EPA designates PFAS as a hazardous substance, “now, you're looking at not just direct action by individual plaintiffs, you're looking at the government coming in and forcing you” to clean it up. “It’s going to get regulated. And that can mean you might get sued by the government.”

She advises farmers to obtain pollution liability coverage but also look for any policies they may predate the insurance industry’s decision in the mid-1980s to begin excluding pollution from general liability coverage.

“If you have to clean up PFAS, if PFAS is regulated to a certain level, you're going to be forced to incur substantial defense costs and substantial [cleanup] costs,” Roje said. “Wthout insurance, it can really take out a small to mid-sized business.”

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