PFAS disclosures from the Department of Defense cause fear and uncertainty for farmers

by Ryan Nebeker

Published: 9/20/23, Last updated: 9/20/23

In late 2021, farmers Adam Nordell and Johanna Davis heard that their farm had appeared on what would turn out to be a very consequential map. Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection had plotted sites around the state where sewage sludge — potentially bearing toxic PFAS chemicals — had once been spread as fertilizer. Nordell and Davis faced a difficult decision: They could either ignore the potential problem and risk the health of their family and customers, or test for the chemicals and risk losing the farm if they were found. 

Between April 2022 and March 2023, more than 300 farmers across 17 states received similar news. This time, it was the Department of Defense letting them know that their land or water might be contaminated with PFAS — the possible result of activities on nearby airbases and military installations. It’s a notice that thousands of farms have received since the DOD started releasing the information in 2021, but much like Nordell and Davis in Maine, the farmers near affected DOD sites have received no further government help and have been left to decide for themselves whether or not to test their soils or crops.

Disclosures are an important first step in uncovering the full extent of PFAS contamination in the food system, but as advocates have noted, these notices have not historically come with the additional support farmers need to manage the risks for their farms. This makes the disclosures an unfortunate microcosm of how the PFAS contamination crisis has played out so far: Individuals are forced to bear the responsibility for (and consequences of) a problem that should lie solely on the shoulders of the chemical industry and the government agencies that have failed to regulate it.

PFAS, nicknamed “forever chemicals” because they never naturally degrade, have been linked to a number of health problems, including endocrine disruption, birth defects and cancer. But despite evidence that the chemicals could cause harm, their many uses — granting non-stick, greaseproof, stainproof and waterproof properties to materials — have led to their inclusion in all kinds of products, especially food packaging, cookware, clothing and upholstery. PFAS are also a key ingredient in firefighting foams, which are a common safety measure anywhere high-temperature fires pose a hazard. That includes DOD airbases.

But using those foams, or even storing them incorrectly, leaches PFAS into the surrounding groundwater and soil. As PFAS have come under increasing scrutiny, the DOD has been mandated to provide some more transparency about confirmed or suspected PFAS releases into the environment, including, since 2021, by disclosing that risk to farms near its facilities. As of July 2023, the DOD reports that the total of potentially affected farms is up to 3,911. So far, these disclosures have been connected to military installations across the country, with farms in 29 states receiving notices.

Read our report The FoodPrint of PFAS

Notably, the government has not determined whether affected farms are actually contaminated with PFAS — only their proximity to an area where foams have been used or their connection to a water supply that has been contaminated with PFAS.

So what happens to farmers who get these notices? Sadly, notifying people is where the DOD’s legal obligations end: There is no formal guidance or financial support for these farmers, and no requirement that their water, land or crops be tested, either. Instead, farmers are left with the choice to either ignore the potential dangers of PFAS contamination or take on the cost of testing themselves, with the grim understanding that the results could mean losing everything. Even before the official disclosures began, PFAS contamination from DOD facilities caused one farm in Colorado to lose contracts with suppliers, and another in New Mexico to cease operations entirely.

Disclosing potential contamination and then failing to provide follow-up support isn’t just unfair — it’s unsafe. Without more stringent followup to test land and farm goods, these disclosures do nothing substantial to protect consumers from PFAS in the food supply. The benefit for farmers is not much greater: Without concrete measures like federally funded water-filtration systems, people can’t live on contaminated farms, and even when they do, there’s little information on what crops they can grow without risk of contamination or how to work their land without exposing themselves to PFAS-laden dust.

This doesn’t need to be the case. Though the first impacted Maine farmers received little support after receiving notice of potential sludge-related PFAS contamination, the more recent response to the crisis in the state illustrates how to locate and isolate contaminated land without leaving farmers behind. The first relief came from farm organizations, with The Maine Farmland Trust and the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association administering a relief fund that provides testing, income replacement and infrastructure (like water filtration) for affected farms — provisions that state agencies like the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry have also begun to provide. Still, while this assistance helped some farmers avoid bankruptcy while they investigate potential PFAS contamination, it is ultimately a stopgap until a federal response materializes.

The framework for that response has already been proposed in the Relief for Farmers Hit With PFAS Act, introduced by Maine’s congressional delegation earlier this spring. In addition to providing material support for farmers, the bipartisan bill would also designate research funding to address some of the glaring holes in our knowledge of PFAS, especially the risks they pose for farmers, workers and eaters, as well as how to remediate contaminated soil and water.

As state and federal governments finally begin to take the PFAS crisis more seriously, disclosures like those issued by the DOD will only become more common. But it’s critical they come alongside policies designed to help keep farmers, workers and consumers safe. What’s even more critical is turning off the tap of new PFAS flowing into the environment and food supply — given the capacity of these chemicals to circulate indefinitely in the environment, as long as they are in production, any other efforts can only go so far.

Top photo by Susan Vineyard/Adobe Stock.

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