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Daily News Blog

28
Oct

Bill in Congress Will Pay for Treating Illness and Financial Impact Caused by PFAS

(Beyond Pesticides, October 28, 2022) The Maine Congressional delegation — Senators Collins (R) and Angus King (I), and Representatives Chellie Pingree (D) and Jared Golden (D) — along with New Hampshire Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D), have introduced a bipartisan and bicameral bill — the Relief for Farmers Hit with PFAS Act — to help farmers who have been impacted by the scourge of PFAS (perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances) chemicals. (The Senate version of the bill is available; the House version should be soon.) PFAS contamination has, as Beyond Pesticides documented in two Daily News Blog articles (here and here), become a huge, life-altering problem for agricultural producers in Maine and many other states. An early 2022 Safer States analysis of state-level legislation on PFAS demonstrated the extent of the problem via the response: more than 32 states have begun to act on the issue. Beyond Pesticides has covered the presence of PFAS in pesticides and pesticide containers, and in so-called “biosludge” or “biosolids”— realities that only reinforce the call for a rapid transition off of chemical-dependent agriculture and to regenerative organic agricultural practices that do not carry the enormous health and environmental risks of pesticide products and contaminated fertilizers.

There are more than 9,000 synthetic (human-made) chemical compounds in the PFAS family, which includes the most-well-known subcategories, PFOS (perfluorooctane sulfonate) and PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid). These PFAS compounds, dubbed “forever chemicals” for their persistence in the environment (largely because they comprise chains of bonded fluorine–carbon atoms, those bonds being among the strongest ever created). This class of synthetic chemicals, found in drinking water, surface and ground water, waterways, soils, and the food supply, among other sources, is emerging as a ubiquitous and concerning contaminant across the globe. PFAS contamination of drinking water resources is a serious and growing issue for virtually all U.S. states, as Environmental Working Group (EWG) demonstrates via its interactive map, and for hydrologic ecosystems around the world.

The widespread presence of these compounds arises from multiple sources:

  • extensive “legacy” (historic) use in fabric and leather coatings, household cleaning products, firefighting foams, stain-resistant carpeting, and other products
  • historic and current industrial uses in the aerospace, automotive, construction, and electronics sectors
  • current uses in many personal care products (e.g., shampoo, dental flosses, makeup, nail polish, some hand sanitizers, sunscreens); water-and-stain-proof and -resistant fabrics and carpeting; food packaging; and non-stick cookware, among others

Although some of these uses have been phased out over the course of the past couple of decades, many persist, including several related to food processing and packaging. The flooding of the materials stream with thousands of these synthetic, persistent PFAS compounds since their first uses in the 1950s (notably by 3M) means that they remain widespread in the environment and in human bodies. People can be exposed to PFAS compounds in a variety of ways, including occupationally, through food sources, via drinking contaminated water (another enormous emerging issue; see below), ingesting contaminated dust or soil, breathing contaminated air, and using products that contain, or are packaged in materials that use, the chemicals.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) notes on one of its webpages that, “because of their widespread use and their persistence in the environment, many PFAS are found in the blood of people and animals all over the world and are present at low levels in a variety of food products and in the environment. PFAS are found in water, air, fish, and soil at locations across the nation and the globe. Scientific studies have shown that exposure to some PFAS in the environment may be linked to harmful health effects in humans and animals.” Among the potential health risks of some PFAS compounds for humans are:
• impacts on the immune system (including decreased vaccine responses)

  • endocrine disruption
  • reproductive impacts, including lowered infant birth weight
  • developmental delays in children
  • increased risk of hypertension, including in pregnant people (eclampsia)
  • alterations to liver enzymes
  • increased risk of some cancers, including prostate, kidney, and testicular
  • increase in circulatory cholesterol levels
  • increased risk of cardiometabolic diseases(via exposure during pregnancy)
  • possible increased risk of COVID-19 infection and severity

After years of advocate pressure, EPA in August proposed to “to designate two of the most widely used per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances [— PFOA and PFOS —] as hazardous substances under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), also known as ‘Superfund.’” That designation should mean that polluters must be more transparent about their pollution, and be held accountable for cleanup of their PFAS contamination. EPA took the step pursuant to its recognition of “significant evidence that PFOA and PFOS may present a substantial danger to human health or welfare or the environment. PFOA and PFOS can accumulate and persist in the human body for long periods of time and evidence from laboratory animal and human epidemiology studies indicates that exposure to PFOA and/or PFOS may lead to cancer, reproductive, developmental, cardiovascular, liver, and immunological effects.”

In addition, in June 2022 EPA issued interim updated drinking water health advisories for two PFAS compounds — perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) — replacing those issued in 2016. The agency also issued final health advisories on two others that had been considered “replacement” chemicals for manufacturing uses: perfluorobutane sulfonic acid and its potassium salt (PFBS), and hexafluoropropylene oxide (HFPO) dimer acid and its ammonium salt (the so-called “GenX chemicals”).

In June 2022, EPA set “acceptable” exposure levels for PFOA and PFOS at 0.004 and 0.02 parts per trillion, respectively. These are lower than generally detectable levels (absent new, more-sensitive tests), so EPA now encourages municipalities or other water-supply entities to take action against PFOA and PFOS should any level be detected in a drinking water system. (See EPA’s factsheet here.) Guidelines in individual states, if they even exist, are generally much higher than these new EPA parts-per-trillion levels.

PFAS compounds have been found to contaminate water and irrigation sources, and soils themselves — often through the use of fertilizers made from so-called “biosludge” from local waste treatment plants. In addition, these plants may discharge millions of gallons of wastewater into waterways, contaminating them; current waste and water treatment does not generally eliminate PFAS compounds from the treated effluent water. (Some water providers are now piloting PFAS remediation protocols, though they are currently both challenging and quite expensive.) Biosolids and wastewater have long been sources of exposure concerns related to pesticides, industrial chemicals, pharmaceuticals, personal care products, and household chemicals; PFAS contamination is now rising as a specific and concerning addition to that nasty list.

EWG wrote, earlier in 2022, that these forever (and perhaps “everywhere”) compounds may be contaminating nearly 20 million acres of productive agricultural land in the U.S. A significant portion of producers, perhaps 5%, is using biosludge from local treatment plants as fertilizer on their acreage. Use of biosludge was thought by many, a decade ago, to be a sensible use of the waste products from treatment; it was even encouraged by many state agricultural department programs. Fast forward to the current recognition that these products have no business being spread on fields that produce food — or perhaps anywhere that presents the possibility of human, organism, or environmental exposures to potentially toxic PFAS compounds. It is notable that there are currently no federal requirements to test such sludge for the presence of PFAS.

The agricultural sector is increasingly experiencing very serious impacts from these compounds. Senator Collins, in her office’s news release on the bill she and Congressional colleagues filed, noted, “PFAS contamination has prevented some Maine farms from selling their products, creating financial hardship for many family farmers. In 2016, a dairy farmer in Arundel discovered that the milk produced on his farm contained some of the highest levels ever reported for a PFAS contaminant. In 2020, a dairy farm in Fairfield found PFAS levels in its milk were 153 times higher than the Maine standard. An organic vegetable farm in Unity uncovered PFAS contamination last year, and the couple who farmed the land have higher PFAS levels in their blood than chemical plant workers who manufactured PFAS for decades. Numerous other Maine farmers have had their livelihoods disrupted due to PFAS contamination.”

Beyond Pesticides wrote about two of the instances Senator Collins references. One is the devastation of one organic Maine farm, Songbird Farm in Unity, which learned in 2021 that its well water tested at 400 times the state’s recommended threshold for PFAS compounds. The farmers’ land, livelihood, and health are at stake, with few supports in place (at the time) to help them through this crisis. Another is an Arundel, Maine dairy farmer who has, for years, been testifying to the state legislature about the ruination of his multi-generational dairy operation by the discovery of PFAS in his water and soils, and in his cows’ milk — largely attributable, he says, to the wholesale contamination of the biosludge he had used on his silage crop fields for years.

The federal government has been slow to acknowledge and act on the threats of PFAS. With the advent of the Biden administration, that has begun to change. In 2021, EPA Administrator Michael Regan announced the PFAS Strategic Roadmap, which purports to lay out a whole-of-agency approach to addressing the multiple PFAS problems. (Read about the Roadmap here.) When Beyond Pesticides covered the PFAS (and other legacy chemicals) crisis, we wrote, “For states and localities, who are on the front lines of PFAS contamination, this is welcome news and significantly tardy. Absent much protective action on forever chemicals at the federal level . . . states have been stepping up, particularly in the past five years or so, to deal with a problem that permeates many aspects of people’s lives.”

The bill proposed in Congress (S. 5070) aims to create and fund grant programs that, administered by states, will provide:

  • health monitoring for affected farms, farmers, and families
  • medical care for farm workers and families exposed to PFAS, and for anyone who experiences exposure-related health effects or has a blood level higher than that of the general U.S. population
  • relocation assistance for farms found to be PFAS contaminated
  • compensation for contaminated land or farm products
  • investments in equipment, facilities, and infrastructure to help farmers transition to different cropping approaches, implement remediation strategies, and/or switch to an alternate revenue stream (with a focus on combing solar generation with agricultural uses)
  • help with income replacement and mortgage payments
  • improved PFAS testing and data management for states
  • support for research to quantify the impact of PFAS on commercial farms and agricultural communities

Senator Collins commented on the need for the proposed bill, “USDA needs to step up and provide support to farmers, who at no fault of their own, are at risk of losing their livelihoods. This is not just a problem in Maine — PFAS contamination has been discovered on farms in New Mexico and Michigan [and elsewhere], and this problem will only become more evident as testing becomes more readily available. Thus far, the federal government’s response has failed to keep pace with this growing problem.”

Senator Shaheen added, in her press release, “The more we look for PFAS, the more we understand how widespread these chemicals are, and unfortunately our farming community is no exception. That’s why it’s imperative that we have a robust federal response for industries and communities that have been adversely impacted. . . . This bipartisan, bicameral proposal is a comprehensive approach to help farmers who’ve been hard hit by PFAS exposure, and it addresses everything from educational programs for individuals affected to increased water and soil testing and remediation. Our farmers face enough challenges and adversity from uncontrollable shifts in our climate and economy — reacting to an expansive and troubling issue like PFAS contamination shouldn’t be another hurdle they have to face alone.”

Beyond Pesticides commends these legislators for filing this bill, which would, if passed and enacted, bring significant help to agricultural producers and their communities affected by PFAS. These groups currently are struggling to deal with the devastating discoveries of contamination of their soil, water sources, and/or agricultural products, largely without much governmental support. Beyond Pesticides’ only recommendation might be to specify that the “transition to different cropping approaches” would wisely require the transition to organic systems.

For its part, Maine has been more proactive than most states on PFAS; the state legislature, for example, passed a bill in early 2022 to ban the use of pesticides and fertilizers contaminated with PFAS. It has also passed a bill to reduce toxic chemicals in packaging, and another that will ban the sale or distribution of carpets, rugs, or fabric treatments that use PFAS compounds (effective 2023), and in 2030, the use of PFAS in all consumer products in the state.

Meanwhile, according to Maine Public (radio), the Maine Department of Environmental Protection is now testing more than 700 sites in the state considered at high risk for PFAS contamination because they were licensed to receive applications of municipal biosludge. PFAS contamination has been found at more than 40 Maine farms (as a result of biosludge fertilizer applications). Maine Public reports, in addition, that “hundreds more private drinking wells — as well as some school drinking water supplies — have . . . been found to be contaminated. In response, the administration of Gov[ernor] Janet Mills and state lawmakers have earmarked $100 million for PFAS testing, response, remediation and research in recent years.”

Responding to the proposed federal legislation, Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association Executive Director Sarah Alexander said, “I think this [proposed federal] legislation is really critical for setting a safety net for farmers . . . because we know that the problem of PFAS contamination on agricultural lands is not specific to Maine. We just happen to be the first state that’s looking for it.” She also noted that the federal bill mirrors some initiatives underway as the Maine response to increasing numbers of PFAS hotspots linked to contaminated sludge.

The “meta” issue, about which Beyond Pesticides wrote earlier this year, continues to be relevant: “These most-recent PFAS discoveries, and state legislative efforts to deal with them, underscore not only the [historical] federal failures, but also, the urgency and gravity of realigning federal and state agencies so that precaution becomes the guiding watchword. Legacy/forever chemical contamination is a dramatic demonstration of how the historical, non-precautionary ethic in the U.S. can cause egregious harm — even years and decades hence. Government regulation should, at the very least, stop making the problem worse through continued permitting of the use of PFAS compounds and toxic pesticides.”

Sources: https://www.mainepublic.org/environment-and-outdoors/2022-10-24/maines-congressional-delegation-seeks-federal-support-for-farmers-grappling-with-pfas and https://www.collins.senate.gov/newsroom/maine-delegation-introduces-bill-to-support-farmers-affected-by-pfas

All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.

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