The Field Report: PFAS Is Contaminating the Food Supply

Pollution from PFAS—notoriously dubbed “forever chemicals”—has been linked to multiple cancers, diabetes, and a wide range of other health problems. Their presence in the environment and in our bodies is now considered such an important issue that last fall, the Biden administration announced a plan involving at least six federal agencies to combat PFAS in air, water, and food.

More than 20 years ago, a farmer with sick dairy cows was the first to sound the alarm about what we now know is widespread contamination of the country’s waterways. And this week, new evidence emerged about how PFAS is contaminating farms and the food they produce.

In Michigan, beef from a small cattle farm was found to contain PFAS after the farmers fed the animals crops grown with fertilizer made from wastewater byproducts tainted with the chemicals. And in Maine, an organic produce farm growing heritage grains and vegetables for local communities stopped selling its products after finding high levels of PFAS in the farm’s produce, soil, and water. Tests showed Songbird Farm’s well water had PFAS levels 400 times higher than the state’s legal limit for drinking water. The contamination was also tied to wastewater sludge that had been applied to the land in the early 1990s, more than two decades before Adam Nordell and Johanna Davis established the farm.

“We are reeling from this news and are working to understand what this means for the safety of our products, the viability of our business, and our health,” the farmers wrote in a statement on their website. “The state’s response to the emerging crisis around PFAS has focused on the dairy industry. We have the unhappy distinction of being the first produce farm to communicate with the Maine Department of Agriculture on this issue, though sadly we won’t be the last.”

Meanwhile, in places where the climate crisis is exacerbating drought conditions, residents and ranchers are increasingly relying on groundwater—only to find it contaminated with PFAS at unsafe levels. The PFAS Project Lab at Northeastern University has documented PFAS in soil or water at 1,781 sites, while the Environmental Working Group has mapped over 2,800 sites where public and private water systems are contaminated.

Given the scale of the problem, advocates and lawmakers are calling for action in states and at the federal level. In Maine, Songbird’s farmers testified at a hearing for a bill that would curb the practice of spreading contaminated sludge. In Washington, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will monitor some PFAS chemicals in drinking water starting next year, and the Biden administration’s plan includes U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) research on contamination in the food system and expanded FDA testing of PFAS in food. But it’s unclear whether all these efforts will be enough to halt the practice, how the existing, and likely wide-spread, contamination should be remediated, or what will happen to the farmers and eaters who have been affected. At a House Agriculture Committee Hearing today, Congresswoman Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) promised she will ask “how NRCS [the Natural Resources Conservation Service] can help farmers test and respond to PFAS contamination.”

Read More:
Questions Remain About Using Treated Sewage on Farms
Will the U.S. Ban PFAS in Food Packaging?

You’re Cooking (the Climate) with Gas. The food system is one of the primary sources of methane emissions in the U.S.—from cow burps, farts, and food waste—along with natural gas production. But when it comes to climate impact, the two sectors might be even more linked than we realize, by our cooking habits. A Stanford study published last week found that gas stoves emit far more methane than the EPA had previously estimated. Based on measurements from 53 homes across California, researchers estimated that 1.3 percent of the gas flowing to stoves leaks instead of getting burned off and is released as methane, and that three quarters of the leakage occurs when stoves are turned off. “Using a 20-year timeframe for methane, methane leakage from all U.S. stoves each year is comparable in climate impact to the annual carbon dioxide emissions of half a million U.S. cars,” lead researcher Robert Jackson told Civil Eats in an email.

The findings are likely to increase the calls to rapidly electrify kitchens, spurred by two factors. This week, Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry hosted a gathering of 20 nations to discuss accelerating plans to reduce methane emissions. And over the past two years, story after story has reported on the fact that gas stoves also produce much higher levels of toxic nitrogen dioxide in homes than previously thought. (This study confirmed that finding, as well.) Even small amounts of nitrogen dioxide can exacerbate respiratory issues, especially in children. Some states are already moving to ban gas stoves and furnaces, but they’re facing intense opposition from industry and political backlash has led to other states banning restrictions on gas use.

Read More:
Methane From Agriculture Is a Big Problem. We Explain Why.
The Food System’s Carbon Footprint Has Been Vastly Underestimated

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