John Dillard: Forever Chemicals Could Affect Your Farm

No stranger to dirty boots, John Dillard, an attorney with OFW Law, focuses his practice on agricultural and environmental litigation. ( Farm Journal )

Concerns over per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also known as PFAS, are not on the radar of most producers. However, PFAS presence has had devastating consequences for dairy operations in Maine and New Mexico.

PFAS are a family of almost 5,000 synthetic chemicals with a range of uses from stain- and water-resistant fabrics to fire-fighting foams. PFAS are referred to as “forever chemicals” because their chemical structure is such they do not easily break down in the environment. PFAS can migrate via air, dust and water and can be taken into crops and pasture and absorbed into meat and milk.

These chemicals have a tendency to “bioaccumulate.” They have been linked to adverse human health effects ranging from liver damage, thyroid disease, fertility issues, cholesterol and cancer.

PFAS in Food Products

There is no federal standard for maximum levels of PFAS in food products. However, FDA has established a working group with USDA, EPA and other federal and state agencies to study both the health effects of exposure to PFAS and the prevalence of PFAS in the U.S. food supply. The outcome of this working group will likely be a national standard limiting the levels of certain forms of PFAS in food and drinking water. In the absence of federal requirements, some states have adopted their own standards.

FDA has begun initial testing to determine the extent of PFAS in our food supply. Fortunately, the results have so far shown only a few foods with detectable levels of the most common forms of PFAS, and no results were at levels believed to be harmful to health.

Farm Contamination Concerns

As a whole, FDA might not be overly alarmed about PFAS, but it can be a major concern for farms in regions where PFAS have been manufactured or used. Regulators are particularly concerned about farms near PFAS manufacturing facilities and military bases where fire-fighting foam is used. Biosolids from municipal sewage treatment plants where PFAS were used are also a concern.

For example, in 2016, a dairy farm in southeastern Maine was required to close down when it could not sell its milk due to high levels of PFAS. The farmer and regulators believe contaminated biosolids are to blame.  

In another instance, a large dairy in New Mexico has not been able to sell milk since October 2018 after discovering high levels of PFAS that likely migrated from a neighboring Air Force base.

It is not yet clear the effect PFAS will have on farming operations across the country in regions where these forever chemicals were manufactured or used, but it might result in some land being taken out of production.