The federal government’s drastic reduction in “forever chemicals” levels that are safe for consumption is getting a mixed reaction from Maine farmers.
On Wednesday, the US Environmental Protection Agency released a non-binding health advisory setting the health risks associated with per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances – also known as PFAS or PFOS chemicals – at 0.004 parts per trillion for PFAS. and 0.02 parts per trillion for PFOS.
Previous EPA levels, set in 2016, were 70 parts per trillion for each. Here in Maine, the current threshold for PFOS in drinking water is 20 parts per trillion, while milk is 210 parts per trillion and beef is 3.4 parts per billion.
By the EPA’s own admission, their own new levels are too small to measure with current technology.
The federal advisory on safe levels of “forever chemicals” in the environment is welcome news, Maine farmers say, but it falls far short of solving the current crisis that toxins pose to their livelihoods.
“What the EPA has done seems to be an indication that they are taking these chemicals seriously,” said Adam Nordell, owner of Songbird Farms with Johanna Davis. “It is encouraging that they are concerned about even low exposure.”
Since voluntarily shutting down all farming operations after discovering the chemicals on their land and water earlier this year, the couple have turned to advocacy work around the forever presence of chemicals in the Maine.
An unknown number of acres in Maine were forever contaminated with chemicals when municipal sludge was applied to the land as agricultural fertilizer.
At the same time, Nordell said, the state still has a long way to go to solve the perennial chemical problem.
“It’s a step in the right direction,” Nordell said. “It’s not the end of the story [and] what we need are regulations and enforcement, not guidance.
EPA notices are recommendations only.
“Hopefully the state of Maine will follow suit by adopting its own regulations,” Nordell said. “And the EPA will hopefully provide resources to help.”
Anson Biller of Full Fork Farm in China is concerned that the EPA advisory may deflect a larger issue, as it only specifies two of the most well-known chemicals forever.
“PFOS and PFAS have the most research around them and the industries are moving away from them,” Biller said. “[Is the EPA] simply dodging the underlying problem that others [forever chemicals] are in consumer goods and everyday objects that are not healthy for us or for the environment? »
Biller said drinking water from his own farm tested negative for toxins, but a nearby pond he intended to use for irrigation had high levels of PFAS and PFOS.
The EPA guidelines are long overdue, according to Patrick MacRoy, deputy director of Defend Our Health, a nonprofit advocacy group working on clean and safe food and drinking water issues in Maine.
“Science really pushed him in that direction,” MacRoy said. “This is the amount of PFAS chemicals a person can be exposed to in a given day without health effects.”
Given the new numbers from the EPA, MacRoy said he expects to see acceptable numbers in Maine drop for drinking water, soil and food.
This, MacRoy said, is going to take time, and he understands the frustrations and fears felt by farmers whose livelihoods are threatened by these chemicals and the policies put in place decades ago.
MacRoy said funding available through the state and organizations such as the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association and the Maine Farmland Trust should be able to help growers get through at least some of that. process.
“There had been a very reasonable and valid concern from farmers who had contamination that had no viable way to sustain themselves and continue to farm,” MacRoy said. “Now that we have funds, there is at least some breathing room for them while we figure out viable avenues moving forward.”
As heartened as Nordell is by the EPA’s actions, he said it’s hard not to be angry at the same time.
“This is a problem that has plagued people in Maine for 30 years or more,” he said. “I just think about this time elapsed and all these potential health impacts that have built up for so long – it’s heartbreaking and really unnerving.”
For Biller, it’s hard to think about it as he drives around the state and surveys areas he knows have tested for dangerous levels of chemicals forever.
“It’s really tragic when you walk past some of these places that you know you have [sludge] are spreading and they look healthy and grow food that looks amazing,” he said.
“There can be all the good practices on this earth that people want for healthy produce and you wouldn’t know that the food that’s grown there isn’t good for you.”