FoodPrint recently released a new report and podcast episode about how PFAS are impacting the food system, including agricultural contamination, food packaging, preparation processes. “The FoodPrint of PFAS” studies the PFAS crisis in Maine, revealing how these forever chemicals affect farmers and how these stories can spearhead remediation, regulation, and advocacy efforts for protecting public health.
“For this report and podcast episode, FoodPrint went to Maine, where testing has found evidence of contamination on more than 50 farms, to learn from the farmers who are experiencing the impacts of PFAS on the front lines,” Jerusha Klemperer, Director of FoodPrint, tells Food Tank.
PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a large group of synthetic chemicals characterized by a chain of carbon atoms that are bonded to fluorine atoms. According to the FoodPrint report and podcast, while some PFAS can partially break down over time, their final degradation products are also PFAS themselves, earning them the name forever chemicals.
PFAS have been incorporated into a wide range of industrial processes, including oil and gas extraction and electronics manufacturing, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. They are also useful ingredients in developing coatings for products such as cookware, fabrics, and takeout containers.
The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences reports people can be exposed to PFAS through a number of everyday activities—from drinking water to eating food that contains or has been in contact with PFAS, or through the many household products that contain these chemicals. According to the FoodPrint report, PFAS from any source can also make their way into food through waste streams that contaminate water used on farms and the soil where farmers grow food.
“Years of indiscriminate use of ‘forever chemicals’ in various products, from fertilizers to firefighting foams, has led to alarmingly high PFAS levels in our soils and water,” Klemperer says.
PFAS in soil pose a threat to all consumers and are especially dangerous for the workers who are exposed to them every day, including farmers who live and work on contaminated land. The FoodPrint report and podcast found that several farmers impacted by the Maine PFAS crisis have noted that they and their families have highly elevated blood PFAS levels after living and working on contaminated farms.
While there are still unknowns regarding PFAS contamination and what it means for the food system, the report concludes with a lens of hope for federal and state actions to curb the potential impact of PFAS on the nation’s health and the health of the environment. These urgent actions include efforts to limit the spread of existing PFAS, as well as collaboration between scientists and farmers to clean up farmland contaminated with PFAS.
Since PFAS first appeared on farms in Maine in 2016, there have been several initiatives launched to expand research efforts on PFAS and support farmers and their families. The state’s Department of Environmental Protection now has clearer information and more resources available for farmers.
The Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association and the Maine Farmland Trust are administering a PFAS emergency relief fund to support farmers with financial assistance for testing, mental health support, income replacement, and farm infrastructure. At a federal level, Maine’s congressional delegation has introduced the Relief for Farmers Hit with PFAS Act, which proposes financial support for affected farms, free blood monitoring for farmers, and funding for PFAS remediation research.
“We hope to raise awareness about Maine’s crisis and how it is a bellwether for similar discoveries around the nation—these are dangerous chemicals, which we need to test for, remediate and remove from future production.”
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Photo Courtesy of Cedric VT, Unsplash