by Steve Gilman
Interstate NOFA Policy Coordinator
Although highly toxic PFAS products have been manufactured since the 1950’s only now are they becoming subject to wide-ranging public attention and in-depth regulatory scrutiny. PFAS is an acronym for a class of toxic chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. They are also often referred to as “forever chemicals” because their distinguishing fluorine-carbon backbone is difficult to degrade in the environment, causing them to bioaccumulate in water, soil and the food chain to negatively impact ecological and human health.
This persisting contamination also easily spreads throughout the environment, escaping into remote areas all over the world including the snows of Antarctica. There are more than 12,000 man-made PFAS chemical compounds used by a variety of industries for such things as electronics, oil and gas fracking, paints, pesticides and fire-fighting foams as well as a long list of ubiquitous household products that comprise everything from cosmetics, sports clothing, dental floss, tampons, pizza boxes and food packaging to cleaning products, floor wax, carpeting, non-stick cookware and stain-resistant fabrics.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, PFAS has been detected in the blood of over 97% of Americans, including the umbilical cords of newborns. Even at lower concentrations people and animals can be open to risk through toxic drinking water, polluted air, rainwater and contaminated soil, plants and crops as well as contact with commercial products made with PFAS compounds. Exposure to these hazardous chemicals increase the risk of developing a seemingly unrelated list of illnesses that are not easily traced including prostate, kidney and testicular cancers, immune deficiencies, thyroid disease, birth defects, endocrine disruption, liver damage, disrupted fetal development, high cholesterol and lowered vaccine efficacy.
While the industry has fully known about the toxicity of PFAS compounds from their 75 years of secretive research, the manufacturers have been largely successful in avoiding regulation, hazard designations or bans. But when some initial toxicology studies instituted in the 1990’s started showing organ damage in lab rats along with human health problems, the U.S. government pressured the industry to replace its legacy PFOS and PFOA formulations. In the early 2000’s the chemical corporations began to phase out these initial compounds with new generations of so called “safer” PFAS formulations. However, research is showing, that the replacements are also exceptionally toxic as well as more mobile, more water soluble and more readily taken up by plants.
Furthermore, due to industry-instigated loopholes government regulators have to rely on voluntary manufacturer testing that is limited to investigating individual compounds one at a time instead of the overall category. Meanwhile those discontinued PFOS and PFOA formulations are still being found at 70% of the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) newly established testing sites, sometimes in very high concentrations. For example, off the charts readings were detected at a Maryland creek near Washington, DC, , that are nearly 70,000 times the EPA’s advisory level.
Farmland Contamination and the Industrial Waste Stream
In 2016 the specter of a PFAS contaminated food supply galvanized public concern when mounting media accounts began reporting about a Maine dairy farm whose milk tested for high levels of the forever chemicals, along with the farm’s soil, well water, forage and feed. The century-old farm was shut down, the cows had to be slaughtered and the farmers tested for high levels of PFAS in their blood along with increasing health problems. The culprit proved to be the sewage sludge that was spread as a fertilizer on the farm’s fields starting in the 1980’s. Unaware that the sludge contained toxic PFAS chemicals, the farmers are now engaged in lawsuits against the county wastewater treatment district as well as the PFAS manufacturers DuPont and 3M for the contaminated sewage sludge spread on their farm.
Processed sewage sludge has been successfully marketed as “biosolids” to farmers, gardeners, park managers, schools, golf courses and homeowners for decades as a safe and inexpensive fertilizer. But along with household sewage sources containing PFAS consumer products, it also include the toxic chemical waste stream from dozens of industries – including the primary PFAS manufacturers – that are regularly discharged into public sewer systems. The land disposal of the overall waste stream was developed in the 1970’s as a simplistic alternative to the uncontrolled long-term ocean dumping that was initially addressed by Congress in 1972 through the Clean Water Act and completely banned in 1988. Spreading biosolids on land became the cheapest go-to waste disposal “solution” rather than landfills or incinerators.
Despite mounting science-based warnings about the long term environmental impacts, the practice accelerated throughout the nation in the 1980’s and 1990s with farmland applications in Maine leading the way in the Northeast. Countering the growing opposition by environmental groups and under the guise of “recycling” the EPA stepped in as promoter in the rebranding effort that renamed sewage sludge with a more appealing biosolids moniker. In 2018, however, the EPA Office of Inspector General identified more than 350 pollutants in sludge samples, including 61 that it classifies “as acutely hazardous, hazardous or priority pollutants”. Even with multiple studies that have found that plants and vegetables readily take up PFAS and renewed calls for much stricter regulation of biosolids, there still are no federal standards in place.
Expanded well water testing in Maine revealed contamination on other farms as well, causing great distress throughout the agricultural community. Even though the use of biosolids are totally prohibited under the USDA Organic label, PFAS contamination showed up in some organically certified farm soils as well. Even though organic certification standards require a history of land use along with a 36 month transition period away from conventional management practices to greatly minimize the chance of exposure to synthetic pesticides, fertilizers and other prohibited substances the toxicity of these persistent “forever chemicals” present a much more problematical situation. And land that is now in organic production may have been previously contaminated without the knowledge of the current landowner or the organic certifier of the operation.
Hidden PFAS in Pesticides and Fracking Waste
Further investigation is finding that numerous synthetic pesticide formulations are also a vector for PFAS contamination of farmland. Contradicting previous EPA statements that PFAS compounds are no longer used in registered pesticides, new independent research has found it at high levels in the so-called inert ingredients in 6 out of 10 tested pesticides. Used in this context “inert” is a deliberately deceptive legal term since the ingredient may well be chemically or biologically active but not labeled for purposes of attacking the targeted pest organism. As a sop to the industry EPA only looks at the impact of the “active” ingredients listed on the label – paying no heed to the other chemical constituents even when they make up to 99% of the product. The fact is many inerts are verifiable hazardous chemicals in their own right and studies have found that the combination of all the ingredients in a formulation can make the pesticide 1000 times more toxic than just the active ingredient alone.
PFAS is showing up at high levels as allowable and unregulated inert ingredients used as leaf coatings and shelf life extenders in insecticides, including malathion, one of the most commonly used pesticides on the planet. It is also being revealed as a hidden “trade secret” ingredient in pyrethroid mosquito control pesticides that are directly applied to community waterways by plane or truck. Overall it is unknown at this time how many other pesticides have this hidden PFAS content. The compounds easily infiltrate groundwater and are further taken up by plant roots to contaminate soil and enter the food supply long after such pesticide use has been discontinued.
In a further unidentified large-scale application, the PFAS formulation PTFE (Teflon) has been revealed as an undisclosed chemical used by the hydraulic fracturing industry to boost natural gas and petroleum production. Mixed with other “fracking” compounds it is injected under pressure with sand and water into underground rock formations, opening fissures and forcing trapped gas and crude oil to flow through pipes into a wellhead at the surface. In combination with modernized steerable drilling bits and imaging equipment this profitable technology has opened up vast oil and gas deposits in the US and other countries.
Thanks to a series of loopholes, together with full-throated promotion of the oil and gas industry by then Vice President Dick Cheney in the G.W. Bush Administration, a 2005 law actually bans the federal government from requiring companies to disclose fracking chemicals. They can be partially regulated under state law, however, and by 2016 28 states have been able to require the disclosure of some of the compounds. But under the industry’s “proprietary substance” loophole upwards of 11% of the chemical constituents remain legally unidentified. In addition to the direct contamination of ground water new information tabulating the PFAS-laden fracking waste dumped at just 8 well sites shows more than 21 million gallons of liquid waste and over 30,000 tons of solid waste have been generated since 2012 so far.
Assessing Food Safety
It has been known for many decades that PFAS buildup in the environment can be absorbed by plants and livestock through soil, water and air and move on to contaminate foods. Yet the scientific and technological advances needed to test for PFAS toxicity at very low concentrations (parts per trillion) in diverse types of food is in its infancy. And assessing the health concerns from dietary exposure to the PFAS levels found in those foods is also based on critically incomplete analysis.
Simultaneously involved in doing the research at the same time they’re discovering the contamination, a handful of states have only recently set their own food safety thresholds for a few food items. While initial studies indicate that PFAS is less likely to accumulate in the fruit or grain of plants, for example, contaminated milk and leafy greens show extremely high levels. And while initial research indicates that eating food containing background PFAS levels does not necessarily constitute an immediate health risk, such trace levels can represent a long-term exposure concern.
As for regulating consumer products the FDA has monitored and approved the safety of certain PFAS compounds used in food packaging, food processing and non-stick cookware since the 1960’s when health studies began to raise red flags. Although FDA staff regularly reviews new scientific information the agency’s allowances are often based on research provided by the manufacturers and when potential safety concerns are identified they generally have to work with the industry to reach voluntary market phase-out agreements for risky food contact substances. Actually revoking food contact authorizations altogether is a laborious process via a lengthy rulemaking process that leans heavily on extensive manufacturer input.
Need for Effective Regulatory Action
The manufacturers’ untouchable status is slowly beginning to change, however. A recent report by the National Academies of Sciences recommend that the Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention advise clinicians to offer PFAS blood testing to their patients who are likely to have a history of elevated exposure to the toxins and it urges state public health authorities to improve their PFAS exposure surveillance. The report says testing should be done for people with occupational exposure, as well as those who have lived in communities where contamination may have occurred – such as commercial airports, military bases, manufacturing and wastewater treatment plants, farms where biosolids were spread or landfills and incinerators that have received waste containing PFAS.
In 2021 EPA identified more than 120,000 locations around the country where the agency believed people may be exposed to differing PFAS compounds. The scope of the list underscored that virtually no part of America appears free from the risk of contamination. EPA has also established a Strategic Roadmap setting timelines for proposed actions and new regulations to protect public health and the environment along with holding polluters accountable. Regarded as too little too late, a number of communities, cities and states have been implementing their own regulations – leading to a patchwork of parameters for identifying presumptive PFAS sites with varying drinking water thresholds, leaving many municipalities with only cursory protections.
In May 2022 the Biden Administration announced a series of steps to try to speed up PFAS research along with cleaning up PFAS pollution sites. While there still is no enforceable federal limit, in August the EPA issued a proposed rule that would designate certain PFAS compounds, including PFOS and PFOA, as hazardous substances. This is not a ban however. If the proposal successfully results in a final rule, PFAS manufacturers would be required to assess and report to the government when the chemicals leak into water or soil, potentially making the corporations responsible for cleanup costs under existing Superfund Laws.
The Maine Model for Grassroots Action
Thanks to the diligence of the Maine Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA) in helping to uncover PFAS contamination while working with state agencies to assist impacted farmers, Maine is in the forefront of dealing with the PFAS pollution of farmland. With mounting concern Maine agencies began wide scale soil testing along with evaluating recent sewage sludge samples to develop an interim standard resulting in the first state ban on spreading PFAS-containing biosolids and the sale of biosolids-based compost. The state is also providing supports for contaminated farms along with those that have voluntarily suspended their operations until safety levels can be determined.
The actions prompted by MOFGA are providing a blueprint for effective grassroots state and federal endeavors all around the country. They are working collaboratively with Maine’s Departments of Environmental Protection and CDC Toxicology as well as University of Maine Cooperative Extension to conduct on farm research. With the Maine Farmland Trust they’ve managing an emergency soil testing fund to support affected farms. Through their well-established farmer programs MOFGA is providing individual consultation with concerned farmers to help them understand their risk and navigate available resources. And they are working directly with consumers who are concerned about the safety of the local foodweb.
This has produced a strong bipartisan response from Maine’s state and federal officials alike. With the Governor’s support the legislature approved a $60 million program to monitor health outcomes, provide medical care and conduct soil, water and crop research. The program also directly supports impacted farmers with everything from income replacement and help securing loan forgiveness to long term health monitoring and buyouts. In collaboration with other farming and environmental groups, MOFGA is also prompting investigation into the prevalence of PFAS-containing pesticides as well as promoting research on cleansing crops that can be grown to remediate soil contamination.
Meanwhile in Congress, Maine’s bipartisan delegation has introduced the Relief for Farmers Hit with PFAS Act. The legislation establishes a program authorizing state grants to provide financial assistance for impacted farmers as well as expanding PFAS monitoring, testing, medical treatment and clean ups. It also expands research, including viable soil and water remediation on farms while creating a USDA task force to help bring federal resources to farmers through existing programs.
With MOFGA’s expert counseling NOFA is addressing the widespread contamination in our own region. The state Chapters are presenting input on the impacts of PFAS contamination on farmland, including the repercussions on dairy and the need to regulate biosolids. And along with California, Michigan, Minnesota and Ohio the NOFA states of Vermont, New Hampshire, New York and New Jersey have sued PFAS manufacturers and distributers arguing they are threatening public health and the environment. Overall, thousands of lawsuits have been filed in federal court against the PFAS industry to determine who will pay the cleanup bills – potentially leading to billions of dollars in corporate liabilities.
Systematic Corporate Subterfuge
There’s no question these forever chemicals are poisoning our citizens, our communities, our country and the planet. Often it takes years of unexplained localized sickness and death clusters before PFAS is exposed as the culprit, sometimes long after the corporations have left town or gone bankrupt. Towns and cities are left with contaminated water supplies, farmers are stranded on their poisoned land while the inhabitants continue to suffer serious health problems. And meanwhile extensive public health studies are increasingly showing how most of us are carrying bodily traces of PFAS through chronic water, food and consumer product exposure.
Uncovered documents verify that the PFAS industry corporations not only knew these chemicals were hazardous from the onset in the 1950’s but that they also concealed the toxicity risks from the public and their employees for decades afterward. In a smoking gun timeline the Environmental Working Group recently published corporate documents from DuPont and 3M ‘s actual studies, memos and other materials definitively showing their deception. The surge of reports of corporate malfeasance are finally receiving significant nationwide media coverage with the upshot that the widespread PFAS pollution is no longer a corporate secret.
These economically and politically powerful corporations are not standing still, however. They are well entrenched, know how to work the regulatory system and their PFAS production remains highly profitable. Ever since the State of Maine took action against the land application of sludge materials they have been doubling down with lobbying efforts and publicity blitzes touting the benefits of biosolids. They are also greenwashing a recent study featured in the journal Science that claims PFAS are not “forever” after all because a new way of chemically treating the molecules can break them down. While this study seems to hold up in the laboratory, such attempts to broadly apply this treatment process to the high levels of accumulated PFAS compounds in the wild is unachievable.
Now under duress the industry is strongly resisting calls for strict regulations and outright bans. In a damning report the Environmental Working Group identified 41,828 U.S. industrial and municipal sites that are still using poisonous PFAS compounds. There’s also increasing demands from a growing number of cities, states, public health advocates, agricultural organizations and environmental groups that are calling for strictly curtailing PFAS production and even shutting it down altogether.
Achieving Real Regulatory Oversight
About the only good news on this front these days is that the newly exposed damage of long term toxic PFAS pollution and health effects is finally galvanizing widespread public attention, with increasing demands for stepped up federal, state and legal action. Understandably, public anger is growing against the power of these corporations to pollute with impunity as well as their ability to hamstring the federal environmental and health oversight system despite widespread public support for verifiable protection. The question is: how to finally hold them responsible and put an end to their polluting practices?
It is well to remember the precedents where determined grassroots environmental action has led to bona fide protective legislation. A major bipartisan Congressional consensus was responsible for passing the landmark Clean Water Act of 1972, for instance, curbing long-entrenched national water pollution practices despite powerful industry pushback. The strong citizen backing prompted Congress to override President Nixon’s veto by well over the required 2/3 majority. And in 1980 the Superfund toxic waste cleanup bill also passed, albeit under narrower compromise legislation. Even during the Reagan Administration’s hard right shift to attacking governmental regulations and ramping up partisan fervor for dismantling pollution controls environmental and health protection advocates were still able to field a powerful political constituency. In 1987 when Reagan vetoed a significant bill instituting even stronger Clean Water Act revisions his veto was also firmly overridden by a major bipartisan Congressional vote.
In the absence of authoritative federal regulatory powers both the EPA and FDA have to rely on inadequate health advisories, action plans, cleanup guidance and new testing methods to try to assert and advance their authority. Thus far Congress has also only been working piecemeal through appropriations and other bills to fund a smattering of PFAS remediation and cleanup initiatives. In response to Congressional concerns about PFAS chemicals in food, a November 2022 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report concluded: “FDA doesn’t have specific authority to require companies to provide the information that the agency may need for such reviews—so re-evaluation may not be possible. We recommend that FDA request this authority from Congress” – seemingly a tall order in today’s polarized political climate.
Historically it has been left to the states to step into the breach using their localized permitting powers initially authorized by the Clean Water Act. Even though vastly increased testing is revealing widespread contamination, however, many states lack the political will and/or agency resources to deal with it. Protracted citizen advocacy is key for accelerating this process.
The grassroots Maine model is not only producing authoritative statewide regulations along with citizen support measures and PFAS producer-funded cleanup activity, but is also prompting significant citizen action in other states and ramping up pressure for substantial Congressional involvement. Just as the original Clean Water Act negotiations engaged widespread political support for putting major protections in place for all Americans, PFAS contamination of our water, air, soil and food is not a partisan issue. Republican and Democratic legislators alike must swiftly be brought to awareness that the 97% of Americans with potentially poisonous PFAS in our blood serum surely includes them as well, along with their families and all of their constituents.
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