by Kyle Davidson
Farmers from across the country spoke out this week on the impacts of PFAS contamination on their farms, calling on lawmakers to pass protections and provide restitution to those afflicted.
As part of the Michigan State University Center for PFAS Research’s Annuals symposium, farmers from Maine, New Mexico, and Michigan spoke on Monday alongside members of the Great Lakes PFAS network, the Maine Farmland Trust and Defend Our Health, a Maine-based environmental health organization, sharing their experiences with PFAS contamination.
PFAS, sometimes known as forever chemicals, are a group of contaminants that break down very slowly.
According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, the chemicals can be found in food and drinking water as well as household products, soil near waste sites and sludge produced by wastewater treatment plants. They have been linked to a number of negative health impacts, including increased risk of cancer and reducing the body’s immune response.
While members of Congress work on revisions to the latest farm bill, farmers, researchers and environmental health advocates are calling on state lawmakers to add protections for farmers facing contamination, as members of Congress work to advance the Relief for Farmers hit with PFAS Act, led by U.S. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine).
The bill contains language that is intended to be included in the next farm bill, which is under discussion by the House and Senate Agriculture committees, which are chaired by U.S. Rep. Glenn Thompson (R-Pa.) and U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing), respectively.
The bipartisan bill has been introduced in both the U.S. House and Senate. It is modeled after legislation in Maine, and would allow states to apply for competitive grant funding in order to provide farmers who have discovered PFAS contamination with a safety net.
“It would cover things like testing filtration, income replacement, health care, including mental health support, research, support management shifts so that farmers can continue to produce our food and relocation support if needed,” said Shelly Megquier, the policy and research director for Maine Farmland Trust.
“Our farmers sustain us, they produce safe and healthy food and they bolster our rural economies,” Megquier said. “Why would we disrespect farmers by leaving them alone to clean up our collective mess of PFAS contamination?”
Kevin Elliott, a Michigan State University professor and member of the Center for PFAS Research, said that while advising clinicians on whether to offer blood testing with patients who have been exposed to high levels of PFAS the National Academy of Sciences committee he was working with found that blood testing can be difficult for people to access without a federal program.
“If there’s not some sort of federal program for testing, then it can be difficult for a number of folks to actually be able to afford to get those blood tests and to have the counseling to be able to make good use of it,” Elliott said.
“One of the things that we can do for these kinds of communities is to have a program to provide funding for counseling, and potentially for medical monitoring afterwards, but at least so that people can find out what their exposures are to inform their further medical practices, their clinicians and their decision making going forward,” Elliott said.
When noting groups that are likely to have a history of elevated exposure to PFAS, farmers who have put biosolids on their fields were one of the groups recommended for blood testing, Elliot said.
Adam Nordell, a farmer and a campaign manager for Defend Our Health, said his farm was contaminated by PFAS through sewage sludge applied to the land as fertilizer. As a result his farm has been put out of business and his family has been exposed to harmful chemicals.
“Farmers work incredibly hard to produce clean, healthy food for our customers, for our communities, and none of us want to send product out the door with toxic chemicals in them. We all have an investment in a clean healthy food system, we all eat food grown on farms. So this is an issue that we all have an investment in,” Nordell said.
This issue is impacting farms across the country with an estimated 5% of U.S. farmland — or 20 million acres — having been spread with sludge without any testing for PFAS, Nordell said.
Jason Grostic, whose Brighton, Michigan, farm was also contaminated with PFAS says Michigan offers nothing for farmers, unlike Maine.
“We get to more or less live our lives with no support whatsoever, which needs to change big time,” Grostic said.
“As I keep telling everybody, we need to get ahead of [PFAS] before it gets ahead of us, but I don’t believe Michigan is paying attention to that aspect of it,” Grostic said.
While Michigan has implemented a program for reducing PFAS in biosolids and preventing treatment facilities with elevated PFAS levels from applying their sludge to land, most of the state’s efforts to address PFAS are focused on drinking water and groundwater.
Maine has banned the application of industrial and municipal sewage sludge, sometimes called biosolids, on farmland, and set aside $60 million to help farmers address the impact of contamination.
While the $60 million is not enough, it’s a good start, said Sarah Woodbury, director of advocacy for Defend Our Health.
“It is very important for the federal government to step up. But as we all know, the federal government isn’t exactly the most speedy of bureaucracies, and it will take them time,” Woodbury said.
“While Congress works on that, on the farm bill and other issues, states need to step up and follow what Maine has done,” Woodbury said.
This includes banning all non-essential use of PFAS in products to protect against further contamination, and considering policies on the use of sludge on farmland. They should also set aside funds to help farmers with things like income replacement, farm buybacks, medical monitoring, and mental health monitoring, Woodbury said.
“States should follow Maine’s lead and do the right thing to protect our farmland and to protect our farmers, who are essential to our economy and our way of life,” Woodbury said.