What does the expanding PFAS crisis mean for the food system?

by FoodPrint

Published: 9/12/23, Last updated: 9/12/23

In 2016, Maine farmers Fred and Laura Stone were given the news that the well water at their multi-generational dairy contained higher-than-acceptable levels of PFAS — a troubling class of “forever” chemicals known to have adverse health impacts.

The Stones tested their soil and milk and found high levels of PFAS there, too. After these discoveries, they lost their contract with a regional milk company and looked to their government for answers. But state officials in Maine treated the Stones’ farm as an outlier and offered them little to no support.

It would take several years — and several more shuttered farms — for them to realize that this was far from the case.

When we put together our report on food packaging in the fall of 2019, we briefly covered PFAS and their role in waterproofing and greaseproofing burger wrappers and paper takeout containers. The concern presented in our report was that people could end up eating or drinking PFAS as they leached into our food and drink from this packaging.

Soon after, news stories from Maine began to bubble up to national outlets. A March 2019 Reuters article indicated a growing suspicion that the Stones’ farm was not alone: “Now state regulators and health experts are investigating whether the contamination could reflect a much broader problem for farms that used similar methods to fertilize their land.” Maine Gov. Janet Mills assembled a PFAS taskforce to study agricultural contamination. The story was clearly about much more than just food packaging.

This past spring, we headed to Maine to learn more about PFAS and how they have ended up in well water, on farms, in food and, ultimately, in people’s bodies. What we learned is that Maine has borne the brunt of this crisis only because the state government was the first to go looking for PFAS in a systematic way. Their crisis has since become everyone’s crisis: Recent analyses have found PFAS in 83 percent of sampled U.S. surface waters, 60 percent of sampled public groundwater wells and in the bodies of animals up and down the food chain worldwide. And the PFAS story is only going to get bigger.

In conjunction with the release of our podcast episode, titled “PFAS: The ‘Forever Chemicals’ in Your Food,” we are releasing our latest deep-dive report. “The FoodPrint of PFAS” provides deeper context for this class of chemicals and how they’re impacting the food system: what they are, how they function, why they were put into such wide use and how we can get them out of circulation.

Listen To The Episode
Read our report

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