Maine developing PFAS safety levels for locally grown food

Maine is developing a broad set of safety standards designed to forever protect the public food system from chemicals and determine when local farmers trying to recover from a PFAS crisis can safely return to market.

Maine already has safety limits for milk and beef, but the hunt for polluted wells and fields at more than 1,000 farm sites where sewage sludge was used as fertilizer has led state toxicologists to set food safety limits for other local crops and livestock as well.

Fred Stone clings to his brown Swiss cow Lida Rose at his dairy farm in Arundel in 2019 after a press conference where he spoke about PFAS chemical contamination in his fields and his cows caused by mud he spreads in the fields had and was told would help the soils. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Once these safety levels are established, the state must decide when and how to use them, but one thing is certain: consumers should not assume that the food they buy from their local grocery store or farmer’s market has been tested for PFAS.

“Maine just doesn’t have the human, financial or testing capacity to test everything we grow or breed in Maine for PFAS,” Deputy Agriculture Commissioner Nancy McBrady said Wednesday after leading a legislative committee on so-called chemicals for the had informed eternity. “Let alone what we import into Maine.”

PFAS are a class of over 9,000 man-made chemicals that have been used in industrial and household products such as waterproof clothing, non-stick cookware and fire-fighting foam since the 1950s. They have been linked to cancer, kidney dysfunction, immune system suppression and preeclampsia in pregnant women.

Once established, Maine will most likely use food standards to determine when a contaminated farm is safe to sell to the consumer market, either because that particular crop failed to absorb the harmful substance or on-site remediation efforts such as water filtration systems have worked. McBrady said.

To date, the state has identified higher levels of PFAS contamination at 56 farms across Maine, most of which were within a tenth of a mile of a site where Maine had permitted large-volume, high-frequency applications of sludge or sewage sludge, McBrady said.

The state is providing financial assistance to these farmers — $2 million so far, McBrady said — while trying to figure out how to remove the chemicals where possible, or helping farmers modify their operations to use polluted fields, water sources or to avoid food sources.

Maine has also established a $60 million PFAS fund to help farmers deal with the PFAS crisis and to guide Maine research in this area. However, the advisory board that oversees the fund is just beginning its work and will not be able to release funds until mid-summer, fund director Beth Valentine said.

The good news is that preliminary research has found that different types of livestock, produce and fruit absorb and store PFAS in different ways, according to toxicologist Andrew Smith of the Maine Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

For example, if a farmer replaces contaminated feed or water with clean versions over time, the milk or beef from cattle that once exceeded acceptable health standards can eventually be safely consumed, Smith said. However, pigs appear to retain PFAS for much longer even after the source of contamination has been removed.

Likewise, research suggests that crops such as asparagus, corn, potatoes, rhubarb, squash and tomatoes could still be grown on farms with PFAS contamination, Smith said. In some crops like corn, this is because the stalk absorbs the PFAS, but the grains we eat do not.

That’s good news for Maine, the nation’s eighth-largest potato producer. Maine harvested 1.81 billion pounds of potatoes last year, down slightly from 2021’s total of 1.84 billion pounds, but still a strong harvest, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

However, other crops such as lettuce, arugula, carrots and spinach also appear to absorb and store PFAS. None of these rank among the state’s top five crops, but many farms still grow them. For example, federal data shows that more than 300 of Maine’s 7,600 farms grow lettuce.

To set a PFAS limit for an individual food, researchers like Smith consider three different components: established toxicity levels for the most common PFAS, the PFAS intake of that vegetable, fruit, or animal, and the amount of that food that a child or person eats eats sick or elderly American will likely eat.

Maine’s CDC uses state toxicity standards when available, but because states have often been ahead of federal agencies on the PFAS issue, this isn’t always possible, Smith said. But in 2021, the United States Agency for Toxic Substances’ disease registry began looking into the toxicity of PFAS, which has helped.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture maintains an extensive annual database of U.S. food habits that can help researchers like Smith know how much of a given product Americans are most at risk, or the biggest consumers of that product, are consuming on any given day, month, or year . he said.

The end goal: an allowable daily intake of PFAS for any food that poses minimal health risk, he said.

The agency has drafted safety limits for pork, eggs, lettuce, spinach and potatoes, Smith said.

The enduring question is how and when such limits should be enforced, Smith said. Should all foods above the limit be banned from the market? Or, like a public water supply, should there be a public notice and encourage the farmer to reduce PFAS over time? A combination of both?

“There are many regulatory questions that need to be asked even after the science is complete, and even science is a moving target as toxicity levels change and decrease over time as more is learned about the health effects of PFAS ‘ Smith said after the briefing. “There’s still a lot we don’t know.”

The CDC is building, equipping and staffing a $1.6 million PFAS testing lab to be available to conduct tests that need to be implemented quickly – such as: Early 2024, Smith said.

Two private labs responded to a state invitation to build PFAS testing capacity in Maine, he said.

McBrady warned lawmakers not to assume that a farmer whose fields, herds or wells have been heavily tested for PFAS could simply switch his farm from cattle grazing in fields highly tested for PFAS to an asparagus farm. Not only is it stressful, but it may not be financially viable.

Some farmers sitting on property contaminated with fertilizers applied through Maine’s licensed sludge and sewage residue program will want to relocate to a PFAS-free site or be bought out by the state under a buyback program, rules of which are still pending determined, she said.

Maine’s agricultural crop has increased in area over the past year — 244,000 acres in 2022 compared to 227,000 in 2021 — bucking a national trend of shrinking agricultural production, according to data released by the US Department of Agriculture last month.

Last year, Maine became the first US state to ban the sale of products containing PFAS, except for products considered “unavoidable” such as: B. medical products. The ban won’t come into effect until 2030, but starting this year, manufacturers will have to report PFAS in locally sold products to the state.

So-called “forever chemicals” are found in the blood of 97 percent of Americans, so named because they don’t break down naturally. Research shows that some PFAS compounds decrease fertility, cause metabolic disorders, damage the immune system and increase the risk of cancer.

The family of water and heat resistant chemicals has been used for 70 years. It also flows into us and then out of us through waste. Sludge from wastewater treatment and industrial plants prompted Maine’s PFAS survey on farms at 1,000 sites.

Maine has taken a leading role in regulating PFAS, often overtaking federal agencies. Its PFAS drinking water standard is more stringent than the national standard, at least for now. Federal agencies have not established PFAS limits for milk or beef, but Maine has established limits for 2017 and 2020, respectively.

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