Published: 9/11/23, Last updated: 11/01/23


For more than 40 years, Fred and Laura Stone had been raising dairy cows and selling milk in Arundel, Maine. They’d taken over the business from Fred’s parents, and Laura had been raised in a dairy household herself.

When local water authorities contacted them in 2016 to say that their well water had tested positive for something they had never heard of before — PFAS, also known as “forever chemicals” — they didn’t know what to make of it. But they knew they would need to test their product: Stoneridge Farm sold milk to a company called Oakhurst Dairy, which in turn sold to grocery stores around the region.

After finding higher-than-acceptable levels of PFAS in the milk, the Stones tested their soil, discovering that one pasture in particular had astronomical levels. This discovery set off a personal crisis for the Stones: Given that PFAS have been linked to a number of health issues, Oakhurst suspended their farm as a supplier, ultimately resulting in the closure of the multigenerational dairy.

State officials in Maine originally treated the Stones’ farm as an outlier, or as Fred describes it, “a unicorn,” but this was far from the case. Upon unraveling the mystery of how the PFAS got there — treated sewage sludge that the state’s Department of Environmental Protection had encouraged farmers to use as fertilizer — it became clear that the Stones were not alone. They were simply the first of many farms in Maine to discover that their land, crops and livestock had been contaminated. As of early 2023, more than 50 farms had been affected.1 That number is sure to grow.

Studying the PFAS crisis in Maine (as well as similar discoveries in New Mexico, South Carolina and Michigan) has helped researchers understand just how pervasive these forever chemicals have become in the environment, not just on farms but also in drinking water, wildlife and our own bodies.2 3 4 But our growing awareness of PFAS pollution brings as many questions as it does answers: Why are these chemicals so common in the first place? Why are they still in production, even as their impacts on our health and the integrity of the environment become clear? How are they making their way onto farms and into food? How prevalent are they in our food supply, not just in Maine but around the country? What does their presence mean for the health of farmers and consumers? And what do we need to do to address this emerging crisis?

What are PFAS?

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS, also used in the singular) are a large group of synthetic chemicals characterized by a chain of carbon atoms that are bonded to fluorine atoms through a process called fluorination. These incredibly strong chemical bonds make PFAS very nonreactive, which grants nonstick, heat-resistant, flame-retardant, greaseproof, stain-proof and waterproof properties, among others, to materials made with them.5 Because those bonds are nearly impossible to break, PFAS are also some of the most durable chemicals ever synthesized. Some PFAS can partially break down over time, but their final degradation products are also PFAS themselves, which has earned them the name “forever chemicals.”

Chemical Structure of PFOA
PFOA is a common PFAS. Click here to view a larger version of this graphic

PFAS have been incorporated into a wide range of industrial processes, including oil and gas extraction, electronics manufacturing and dry cleaning. They appear as ingredients in firefighting foams, adhesives, spray paints, cosmetics, cleaning products and other goods.6 Their nonreactive nature makes them useful as coatings for a huge number of products, like cookware, fabrics and takeout containers. In some cases, including certain manufacturing processes and the production of some medical devices, carefully used PFAS are truly critical.7 But in many instances, PFAS are used simply to optimize ease and convenience: Stain-proofing fabrics for easier cleaning, for example, or imparting the greaseproofing and heat-resistant qualities that have helped the proliferation of disposable food packaging.8

There are varying definitions of what qualifies as a PFAS, a fact that has significant implications for regulators. The widest, often used by environmental scientists, also includes numerous pharmaceuticals that regulators treat differently than the more toxic PFAS used in industry.9 The Environmental Protection Agency has adopted a narrower definition, which the chemical industry has argued is still too broad and would therefore subject companies to burdensome oversight. Meanwhile, environmental and public health advocates have deemed the EPA’s definition too narrow, leaving loopholes for chemicals of concern.10

Common PFAS chemicals

Name Chemical Name Status Notes
Chemical Name PFOS Status Perfluorooctane sulfonic acid Notes Phased out of U.S. production in 2002 Long a popular PFAS for stain- and greaseproofing applications; continues to circulate in the environment, though research suggests that average PFOS levels in blood have declined by as much as 85 percent since its phaseout
Chemical Name PFOA Status Perfluorooctanoic acid Notes Phased out of U.S. production in 2015 Formerly used in the manufacture of products with PTFE (Teflon), another PFAS; also a common component of firefighting foams
Chemical Name PFHxS Status Perfluorohexane sulfonic acid Notes Phased out of U.S. production in 2002 Sometimes also formed as a byproduct during the manufacture or breakdown of other PFAS chemicals
Chemical Name HFPO-DA (GenX) Status Hexafluoropropylene oxide dimer acid (the trade name GenX also refers to a wider group of related chemicals) Notes Remains in production A short-chain PFAS developed as an alternative to PFOA and other long-chain PFAS; highly mobile, especially in water, though less bioaccumulative than the chemicals it was designed to replace
Chemical Name 6:2 FTOH Status 6:2 fluorotelomer alcohol Notes Currently being phased out of production and use in food packaging A short-chain PFAS that was popular in food packaging for its greaseproofing effects
Chemical Name PFBS Status Perfluorobutane sulfonic acid Notes Remains in production A short-chain PFAS intended to replace PFOS

11 12 13

The health impacts of PFAS

Health impacts vary based on the type of PFAS, the means of exposure and its duration and concentration. People can be exposed to PFAS through drinking water, by eating food that contains PFAS or that has been in contact with PFAS-treated packaging, by ingesting or inhaling dirt or dust that contains PFAS or by using any of the thousands of household products that contain PFAS.14 People who work in facilities where PFAS are used or produced — like firefighters or workers in chemical plants — see higher levels of PFAS in their blood than the general population, putting them at additional risk of developing health complications.15 Farmers who work and live on highly contaminated land (like the Stones of Stoneridge Farm) have shown very high levels of PFAS in their blood and have reported several of the health conditions associated with PFAS. People living near PFAS manufacturing facilities are also more likely to have elevated blood PFAS levels as a result of PFAS in the nearby air, water and soil. Because these facilities are so often located in low-income communities of color, PFAS exposure is a serious environmental justice concern.16

So far, researchers have linked PFAS exposure with a high degree of certainty to thyroid disease, endocrine disruption, high cholesterol, low immune response, developmental abnormalities and birth defects, liver damage and kidney and testicular cancer. Evidence is mounting that PFAS exposure may also be tied to breast cancer, pregnancy complications, low fertility, obesity and inflammatory conditions like ulcerative colitis.17 Many of these conditions result from defects in the liver and kidneys, the main sites where PFAS accumulate within the body. Scientists have also found associations with certain neurological and behavioral conditions, like ADHD, Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease.18

As with many other environmental contaminants, PFAS pose higher risks to vulnerable groups. This is especially true for children, who are both more sensitive to PFAS as they grow and more likely to be exposed to PFAS in their environment because they are more likely to play with, chew on or ingest household items, dust or dirt that contain high levels of PFAS.19

PFAS in the environment

The negative impacts of PFAS aren’t just limited to human health: PFAS are both persistent and mobile in the environment, meaning that they can cycle through ecosystems almost indefinitely. They are also already present in almost all ecosystems where researchers have looked for them. Researchers have found PFAS in the blood of more than 300 animal species worldwide, from fish to birds to marine mammals, indicating widespread circulation between regions.20

PFAS tend to build up in the bodies of people, plants and animals over time, resulting in higher concentrations than are found in their environments — a phenomenon called bioaccumulation. Although effects vary, PFAS can cause the same kinds of health problems in animals that they do in humans. Animals higher up in food chains (such as large predators) may accumulate far higher proportions of PFAS as they absorb it from the prey they eat. This means that these species, which already exist in lower numbers because of their position in the food chain, may be especially vulnerable to reproductive disruption and other problems from PFAS.21


The percentage of sampled waterways around the U.S. where PFAS have been found.

PFAS are especially likely to end up in aquatic and marine environments as they wash into waterways. In a 2022 analysis, researchers determined that PFAS have been found in 83 percent of sampled waterways around the U.S., indicating the vast majority of waterways in the country have some level of PFAS contamination.22 In the ocean, PFAS can disrupt the growth of plankton, a problem researchers hypothesize could affect the ocean’s ability to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, threatening to accelerate climate change.23

The history of PFAS

Some of the earliest PFAS were synthesized in the 1930s and later played a limited role in World War II munitions manufacturing, including the Manhattan Project. The first commercialized PFAS, polytetrafluoroethylene (or PTFE), was released by DuPont as the nonstick coating Teflon in 1946.24 An enormous commercial success, Teflon was joined by other PFAS that became commonplace in many products over subsequent decades. Companies initially claimed that their chemical properties made PFAS essentially inert, and therefore low-risk to humans and to the wider environment. It took until the 1990s for evidence of their toxicity to become widely understood in the scientific community, and until the 2000s for consumers to begin hearing about the health risks associated with Teflon and other products.

But hard work by whistleblowers and journalists has shown that chemical companies knew about the health risks of PFAS for decades before that — and intentionally hid them from the public. Documents obtained by groups like the Environmental Working Group show that by 1950, 3M was aware that PFAS could end up in the blood of mice, and by 1954 had evidence it did the same in people. Evidence of toxicity followed soon after; internal documents reveal that DuPont knew Teflon was toxic to animals as early as 1961.25 Throughout the 1970s, 3M’s studies on its own employees confirmed that workers had high levels of PFAS in their blood and that this was correlated with a number of adverse health outcomes, including liver damage and birth defects. 26

While small portions of this research were submitted in compliance with federal regulations to the Food and Drug Administration (which did limit some PFAS use in food packaging as a result), the company withheld the most incriminating data about PFAS from both the government and the public.27 In 2004, the EPA sued DuPont for withholding the information, citing “multiple failures to report information to EPA about substantial risk of injury to human health or the environment.”28 Meanwhile, whistleblowers at the EPA have exposed the agency’s role in tampering with reports to make PFOA and other chemicals appear safer, further limiting the agency’s ability to regulate PFAS.29

In the intervening years, several PFAS with the best-documented health concerns (like PFOA and PFOS) have been phased out by voluntary agreement between manufacturers and regulators. However, these “legacy” PFAS, sometimes referred to as “long-chain” PFAS because of their larger size, continue to circulate within the environment and cause problems. Concerningly, the shorter-chain PFAS chosen to replace them, like the group of chemicals referred to as GenX, can be just as harmful while being more mobile in the environment.30

PFAS in the food system

The simplest and most direct way that PFAS make their way into food is through food packaging. But PFAS from any source, whether found in food packaging, paper products, raincoats or firefighting foam, can eventually make their way into our food through waste streams that contaminate the water used on farms and the soil where farmers grow our food — and the feed for the animals we eat.

PFAS in food packaging

Innovations in food packaging have made it easier for us to transport prepared food without worrying about liquid soaking the container or grease seeping through to our hands or clothes. When you look at pizza and takeout boxes, rotisserie chicken bags, bakery wrappers and the paper wrapped around your burger, you are looking at products that likely contain PFAS.

Because PFAS impart nonstick, greaseproof and waterproof properties, the FDA has approved some of the chemicals for use in food packaging and processing equipment since the 1960s. While PFAS in Teflon products and newer nonstick cookware have gotten extensive media attention in recent years, PFAS in food packaging have seen far less public scrutiny. However, because PFAS molecules are more loosely attached to packaging materials than they are to metal cookware — PFAS are bound to metal at a very high temperature during the manufacturing process — the chance for the chemicals to migrate into food from packaging is actually higher.31 This makes food packaging a major concern for both personal PFAS exposure and, when it is discarded, contamination in the wider environment.

Because PFAS make otherwise porous surfaces water- and greaseproof, they are especially popular in paper and molded fiber products that would normally break down easily on exposure to moisture. PFAS are commonly found on wax paper, parchment, pizza and takeout boxes and microwave popcorn bags. Ironically, PFAS are especially common in “eco-friendly” compostable serviceware. One 2019 analysis found that PFAS were present in compostable bowls from several restaurant chains.32 While a few, including Sweetgreen and Chipotle, have since pledged to phase out packaging that contains PFAS, progress has been slow, with high levels of PFAS still detected in many of their products as of 2022.33 There is also clear evidence that the chemicals don’t stay there forever, even before disposal: Researchers in Canada observed that bowls stored in a dark enclosed space for two years saw an 85 percent decrease in PFAS levels, indicating that the chemicals broke off easily into the surrounding environment. In less stable conditions, like after exposure to heat and moisture from food, PFAS shedding could be even higher.34

Over longer time periods, compostable products will shed all their PFAS as the materials degrade. This means that contamination is a significant concern for the composting facilities where the products end up. One preliminary study found that PFAS levels were up to 10 times higher in compost from facilities that accepted compostable fiber bowls compared to those that did not.35

PFAS in food packaging
Click here to view a larger version of this graphic

PFAS from packaging can end up in food (and later, the body that eats the food) at highly variable rates, with food temperature, packaging material and the kind of PFAS used all changing the way the chemicals are transferred. So far, research has shown that people who eat more food away from home have higher levels of PFAS in their blood. In the same study, people who ate more microwave popcorn also had elevated blood PFAS levels, indicating that PFAS that are heated or otherwise have contact with hot food have a higher chance of moving into the body.36 While research on how PFAS move into the body from packaging is still limited, scientists are beginning to collect data on what kinds of exposures present the most risk.

Agricultural PFAS contamination

Food packaging isn’t the only source of PFAS in the food system. The story of the Stones and their dairy farm is a good demonstration of PFAS’ tenacity in the soil and water, and why it is cause for great concern in terms of the long-term safety of agricultural land. PFAS can migrate from soil and water into crops and the bodies of livestock, and then into food, as they did in the milk from Stoneridge Farm.

While state officials in Maine initially thought PFAS were a dairy-specific problem, it has since become clear that produce farms are also at risk when their land is contaminated. Songbird Farm, a certified organic operation in the town of Unity, was situated on some of Maine’s most highly contaminated land (the result of sludge spreading in the 1980s); when owners Adam Nordell and Johanna Davis tested all their products in 2021, they found PFAS present in many of them, with leafy greens showing the highest levels. As they and other farmers in Maine have discovered PFAS in their crops, these findings have been crucial to understanding how PFAS move into different plants from the environment.

Agricultural PFAS contamination is emerging as an area of serious concern, with preliminary data indicating that farmland across the country could be compromised.

How PFAS end up on farms

PFAS can end up on farms in several ways. In some cases, PFAS are intentionally added to products such as pesticides. But most PFAS contamination comes from contaminated water, compost and soil additives like sewage sludge — sources where its presence wasn’t previously known or understood to be a risk.

  • Water
    • PFAS that enter water supplies can end up in crops via irrigation, or in livestock through the water the animals drink. Both municipal water sources and private wells have been found to be contaminated with PFAS. Groundwater in areas where firefighting foams have been produced, used or stored, notably air bases and other military installations, is particularly likely to be contaminated with PFAS. Areas around manufacturing facilities that produce or use PFAS (like facilities where nonstick cookware or paper products are made) also show elevated PFAS in groundwater. PFAS from manufacturing facilities can enter groundwater through wastewater that’s discharged into municipal water supply systems, can seep into groundwater from waste that’s disposed of on land and can even leach into groundwater from airborne PFAS residues that settle on the ground.37

Outside of manufacturing and storage sites, PFAS can accumulate in areas that become secondary sources of contamination. 38 In wastewater treatment facilities, for example, PFAS can accumulate from multiple sources — especially households, which discharge PFAS that are used in personal care products, clothing, food and human waste. 39

  • Sewage sludge
    • Wastewater treatment has byproducts that accumulate PFAS during processing, and these can become concentrated sources of PFAS in the landscape. Solids leftover from wastewater processing, called biosolids (by those who want to promote their fertilizing potential) or sewage sludge (by those who know the byproduct has potential hazards), have been used as a nutrient-rich soil additive across the U.S. for decades. When municipal wastewater sources are contaminated with PFAS, these sludges can become concentrated sources of the chemicals. In the most extreme cases, as with Stoneridge Farm and Songbird Farm in Maine, land that has been treated with sludge can have highly elevated levels of PFAS even decades after the biosolids were applied, meaning that even organic farms (where sludge use is banned) can show high PFAS levels if they once used conventional practices or took over the land from different owners.
  • Compost and other soil additives
    • When manufactured materials treated with PFAS enter composting facilities, those PFAS linger long after the materials they were originally bonded to decompose. Food waste itself can also be a source of PFAS in compost if contaminated items are present.
  • Pesticides and other chemicals
    • Because PFAS act as surfactants — chemicals that help disperse components in liquids — PFAS can be useful ingredients in chemical formulations like pesticides to ensure that they spray evenly. While the EPA has banned 12 common PFAS as additives in pesticides, many more may still be included in formulations.40 Because PFAS are listed as inert (rather than active) ingredients, they don’t have to be disclosed on ingredient lists, making it hard to know when and where they are present. Additional PFAS can also leach in when pesticides are stored in plastic containers that have been fluorinated, or treated with fluorine to make them more resistant to degradation — which generates unintentional PFAS in the process. An estimated 20 to 30 percent of pesticide containers use fluorinated plastic, making leaching a serious concern even when PFAS have not been added to the pesticides themselves. 41
How PFAS move through Agricultural Landscape
Click here to view a larger version of this graphic

How PFAS move from land to food

PFAS are taken up by different plants and livestock at different rates, via soil, water or feed — and, as was the case at Songbird Farm, they will also show varying levels of PFAS in their tissues. While data is still sparse, some trends have emerged: PFAS levels seem to be higher in vegetables, especially greens, than they are in fruits and grains, likely because there are fewer tissues to move through.42 As researchers piece together more data, it appears that some crops are generally safe to consume even when grown on contaminated land: asparagus, potatoes, rhubarb, squash, tomatoes and most grains and fruits. Others, like arugula, mustard greens and other green leafy vegetables, show high levels of contamination from soil.43 Livestock also bioaccumulate PFAS, and the chemicals can contaminate most animal products as a result, with demonstrated instances of contamination in beef, poultry, milk and eggs.44 4546

Livestock and crops are not the only problem. PFAS are also increasingly present in wild-caught foods. This is especially true in aquatic environments, where PFAS from water and soil ultimately accumulate, with PFAS being observed in the flesh of freshwater fish caught in nearly every state in the U.S.47 A single meal of freshwater fish can significantly increase blood levels of PFOS and other common PFAS, with researchers calculating that one serving is equivalent to drinking PFOS-contaminated water for a month.48 Though PFAS are more dilute in ocean water than they are in fresh water, marine life can also be contaminated. Clams, cod, crabs, pollock, salmon, shrimp, tilapia and tuna all showed detectable levels of PFAS in a recent FDA survey, though most were below what study authors identified as levels of health concern.49  Low-income people from immigrant and Indigenous communities often rely on wild-caught fish as a source of culturally appropriate, low-cost food — another reason to understand PFAS contamination as an environmental justice issue.50

Deer and other wild land animals can also accumulate PFAS in their bodies if they are exposed to contaminated water or plants. Officials in Maine and Michigan have recommended limiting consumption of deer meat, especially organs, sourced from areas with known PFAS contamination.51

How contaminated food translates into risk for consumers is still poorly understood. While the EPA is assessing the exposure risks posed by typical diets around the country, this research is in early stages.52 Because food supply chains are complex — and because the same type of food can be produced in many different places — it’s difficult to make specific recommendations about what foods to avoid. At the time of writing, there are no federal guidelines for safe levels of PFAS in foods, and the EPA and FDA have little concrete guidance on how to avoid food-related exposure.

After crises like those at Stoneridge and Songbird put Maine at the forefront of the farm contamination crisis, the state has gathered the most comprehensive data on PFAS in food, and as of 2021, its Department of Environmental Protection has set action thresholds for PFOS in milk (210 parts per trillion) and beef (3.4 parts per billion), the first standards set for food in the U.S.53 So far, authorities in Maine have detected PFOS above the threshold for sale in at least one instance, which led them back to a farm with contaminated water. State officials are working to develop standards for more foods, though testing and enforcement will pose additional hurdles.54

PFAS, farmworkers and farmers

While PFAS in soils do transfer to crops and livestock, they also pose a danger to the workers who are exposed to them every day and to the farmers who live and work on contaminated land. Scientists are still developing frameworks to understand how different farm tasks correspond to PFAS exposure risk, but the dust associated with plowing, weeding and other jobs is an area of emerging concern.55 Because many farmers live on the land that they farm, they may also be exposed to PFAS from their wells and groundwater, and children could be exposed to soilborne PFAS from playing on floors or on the ground. Several farmers impacted by the Maine PFAS crisis have noted that they and their families have highly elevated blood PFAS levels after living and working on contaminated farms. These chronic, heavy exposures pose a particularly high health risk compared to less intense exposures from food and household goods, with Fred Stone speculating about a connection between the onset of his Parkinson’s disease and Laura’s diabetes diagnosis in the years after their initial PFAS exposures.56

Estimating the extent of agricultural PFAS contamination

While Maine may have been the first state to extensively test land for PFAS, it’s far from the only place where PFAS are contaminating farmland. So far, PFAS have been detected on farms in Maine, Michigan, New Mexico and South Carolina, but experts say the extent of PFAS contamination in the broader environment means it’s probably present on farmland elsewhere, too.575859 A recent analysis from the Environmental Working Group estimates that up to 20 million acres of farmland could be contaminated with PFAS from sewage sludge application alone. More contamination is possible from other sources: With PFAS present in a majority of U.S. waterways and nearly half of the nation’s tap water, the likelihood that farms across the country have been contaminated with PFAS from water is incredibly high.6061

Regulating and remediating PFAS

While we are still struggling to grasp the full extent of the PFAS contamination crisis and what it means for our food system, there are urgent actions that both federal and state governments could take to curb the future impact on our health and the health of the environment. Environmental advocates are pushing at every level of government to stop PFAS production, the top priority for preventing further contamination. This effort is complemented by measures to limit the spread of existing PFAS, including more stringent controls on sewage sludge and other soil additives. At the same time, scientists and farmers are working to find ways to clean up farmland contaminated with PFAS; while tools are currently limited, developing more effective solutions will be critical both for the survival of impacted farms and the integrity of our food supply.

Stopping PFAS production

Even as it becomes clearer that PFAS contamination is both widespread and harmful, federal and state governments have been slow to respond. This is partially a result of the chemical industry’s immense lobbying power, and of a regulatory system that’s poorly equipped to do independent long-term risk assessments. Efforts to end PFAS production will be most effective at a federal level, but while advocates are pushing the EPA to regulate PFAS more stringently, those efforts will be slow. Meanwhile, local efforts are already seeing success at limiting future PFAS production in states and cities.

Federal Efforts

At the federal level, the EPA is the primary body responsible for regulating environmental contaminants like PFAS. In a situation that parallels the agency’s approach to pesticide regulation, a long-term pattern of deference to the chemical industry means that the EPA isn’t well equipped to do its own detailed risk assessments, and response from the agency has been inconsistent and slow even as evidence of health concerns continues to grow.

Despite early recognition that many PFAS could bioaccumulate in humans, it took the EPA until 2000, when it reached an agreement with 3M to phase out PFOS, to begin the process of regulating some of the worst offenders. In 2002, the agency mandated that all manufacturers disclose any use of certain PFAS in their products.6263 EPA pressure on manufacturers led to a voluntary phaseout of PFOA beginning in 2006, but there were some problems with this approach: First, with the phaseout set for completion in 2015, the timeline for action didn’t match the urgency of the problem. Second, manufacturers ended up replacing the well-researched PFOA with short-chain PFAS that have less-understood health impacts.64 Companies had little trouble jumping through the hoops required by the FDA to get these chemicals approved for use in food packaging, leading to the wide array of PFAS we see in products today.

Under pressure from consumer safety advocates, the federal government has recently started to look more seriously at PFAS as a category. In 2022, the EPA banned 12 of the chemicals from use in pesticides, though without prohibiting their use in agrochemicals outright.65 In March 2023, the agency released a proposal for new limits on PFAS in public water supplies. The new standards, which set a limit of 4 parts per trillion for some of the most common PFAS varieties, are a big step up from the old guidance. Still, 4 ppt represents a compromise from the agency’s original proposed limit — 0.004 ppt — after chemical industry groups sued, arguing that the limit was below detection thresholds.66

EPA limits are a major step and, as one PFAS campaigner in contact with the FDA has stated, an important benchmark for that agency as it considers setting federal standards for food.67 However, there’s some serious skepticism about the EPA’s ability to enforce — or even monitor — PFAS contamination as stringently as advocates would like.

In June 2023, the EPA also proposed rules for the approval of newly synthesized PFAS — requiring more extensive toxicological testing for any chemicals that could be released into the environment, with approval withheld if their use is deemed too high-risk.68 While the rules have not yet been implemented, they would deny PFAS manufacturers the virtual lack of scrutiny they currently enjoy.

Several proposed pieces of federal legislation have attempted to better regulate PFAS production and pollution. So far, the PFAS Action Act of 2021 has been the most comprehensive, with measures that would have designated some of the most common PFAS as hazardous substances (making them subject to more stringent regulation by the EPA), mandated PFAS labeling for products and placed a moratorium on the introduction of new PFAS chemicals.69 While the effort did pass the House of Representatives, it failed to move through the Senate before the end of the term.

State and local efforts

Meanwhile, some state governments have taken more aggressive action to curb PFAS production, with 25 states having adopted at least one piece of PFAS-related legislation.70 California recently passed bills banning the sale of cosmetics containing PFAS, phasing out PFAS use in textiles and mandating PFAS disclosure for all products and ingredients entering the state. California also dedicated resources to monitoring PFAS levels in waterways, with a focus on underserved communities that are in close proximity to manufacturing and waste disposal sites. New York recently banned PFAS in clothing and food packaging, joining Maryland, Oregon and Minnesota, while Pennsylvania and Rhode Island both have introduced their own water monitoring standards and limits for the most common PFAS varieties.71

In reaction to the discovery of high PFAS levels on farms like Stoneridge and Songbird, Maine has led the way with the most stringent PFAS regulation of any state. A progressing statewide ban on the chemicals began rolling out in January 2023, with the aim to completely ban the sale of all products containing PFAS by 2030, except when their use is deemed necessary (an important concession for some medical devices, for example).72 Maine isn’t stopping there: The attorney general’s office is suing DuPont and 3M for producing and marketing the chemicals in the state long after they knew about their health impacts.73

$10.3 billion

The amount that 3M has agreed to pay cities around the U.S. to test and treat water supplies for PFAS contamination.

On a more local level, municipalities impacted by PFAS contamination in their water utilities have taken manufacturers to court over their role in obscuring the health impacts of PFAS and the extent of the pollution. One of the first major cases ended with Dow, Chemours and Corteva agreeing to pay a preliminary settlement of more than $1 billion to cities around the country, with the potential for more payments in the future.74 Meanwhile, 3M reached a similar settlement of more than $10 billion.75 While such cases can’t stop the production of PFAS directly, they do bring financial consequences for chemical manufacturers. If the lawsuits become too burdensome, it may create an incentive to phase out PFAS; 3M has already stated its intention to stop producing PFAS by 2025, a move that would help reduce its liability in the future.76

Limiting the spread of existing PFAS

Even PFAS that have already been produced don’t have to end up in soil and water. Monitoring and controlling how PFAS-laden materials are disposed of could help prevent further contamination of agricultural land. Because sewage sludge has been implicated as a main driver in Maine’s PFAS crisis, the state has led the way in banning sludge spreading on agricultural land. Unfortunately, this leaves fewer options for water treatment agencies in dealing with sewage sludge, pushing them toward landfilling and incineration (which come with their own contamination concerns). Michigan, New Hampshire and Massachusetts have all attempted to build more robust PFAS monitoring systems that would allow some land application if sludge is deemed clean, though the testing requirements may not be stringent enough to catch all PFAS contamination.77

Remediating PFAS contamination

Even in a best-case scenario in which PFAS are quickly phased out of production, dealing with the PFAS that are already in the environment will be a difficult task. Remediation, the process of removing PFAS, isn’t always possible, and even when it’s relatively straightforward — like filtering PFAS out of water — it’s an expensive process. Learning how to remove PFAS contamination from soil, where PFAS are more tenacious, will take time and intensive research efforts.

Removing PFAS from water supplies

Compared to other substances, water is relatively easy to treat for PFAS contamination. Several different kinds of filter can remove PFAS chemicals from water even at a residential level. Reverse osmosis filters, which force water through fine membranes at high pressure, are some of the most effective, achieving an average 94 percent reduction in PFAS in one study.78 Activated carbon filters, which rely on charcoal or other carbon-rich materials to bind PFAS and other contaminants, can also be effective, though their usefulness varies widely depending on the quality and age of the filter: In tests, some activated carbon filters removed all PFAS, while others, especially combination filter pitchers, were far less effective.79 The variety of PFAS is also a factor; activated carbon filters may be less effective at filtering short-chain PFAS varieties than older PFAS like PFOS and PFOA.80 Ion exchange resin filters use synthetic resins to capture particles and are similar in effectiveness to high-quality carbon filters, though they are not as widely available.81

In all cases, filtering leaves behind material that needs to be carefully disposed of to avoid further contamination. Reverse osmosis filtering results in a small amount of highly contaminated wastewater, a big risk for septic and municipal systems. Activated carbon and resin both lose their capacity to bind PFAS and other contaminants over time, and the used materials also need to be appropriately disposed of, though some activated carbon can be recharged and reused by firing at high temperatures.82 Given the difficulty and expense of appropriate disposal, these in-home solutions present a trade-off: Filters can protect individual households while simultaneously moving additional PFAS to wastewater systems and landfills. Water filters that aren’t appropriately maintained or replaced with enough frequency can become saturated with PFAS and actually leave more contaminants in the water than they remove.83 The cost of these systems can make them inaccessible for many homeowners and farmers: Stoneridge Farm was able to afford an activated carbon filter only with the help of grant money — provided by the state as part of Maine’s PFAS relief efforts.

These filtration systems are harder to implement on a municipal scale, though some utility providers in Wisconsin, Massachusetts and other areas have installed effective filtration systems that use resin or activated carbon.8485 Even for small communities, however, the costs are high, and the filters produce significantly more PFAS-contaminated waste than home systems.86

Removing PFAS from soils

Because soil is so rich in the kinds of materials that cling to PFAS (like carbon-rich organic matter), the chemicals are difficult to flush out. So far, existing techniques for remediating contaminated land have focused on removing the soil entirely or applying a technique called soil sorption, binding PFAS in place with other chemicals so they can’t leach into water or be taken up by plants.87 But neither approach is without its limits. Removing large volumes of soil is impractical on an agricultural scale — over one acre, just the top few inches of soil can weigh millions of pounds — and soil sorption has the potential to generate secondary contaminants.88 The chemicals used to bind the PFAS may eventually decompose themselves, leaving the PFAS as a problem for the future. While scientists are experimenting with other techniques — like incineration or agitating soil together with certain metals to break down fluorine bonds — most of these techniques are only partially effective at destroying PFAS and still rely on isolating and removing impractical volumes of soil.8990

Scientists are also researching an approach known as bioremediation, which relies on plants or other living things to take up pollutants from the earth, leaving soils more intact in the process. Many plants have the capacity to absorb PFAS as they grow; however, they do so at low rates that would make them inefficient at eliminating the chemicals from soil, so using them to remediate PFAS is not yet feasible. Even if plants were more efficient at absorbing PFAS, disposing of the resulting PFAS-laden plant material while keeping it out of food chains would also be a challenge. Certain bacteria and fungi also have the capacity to degrade PFAS, though developing actual techniques for these organisms to be useful in treating soils is still far from reality.91

With these methods still in their infancy, farmers are left with few options for remediating their soils. Some farmers may be able to grow “PFAS-safe” crops that don’t bioaccumulate the chemicals at unsafe concentrations in edible tissues, like grains and fruits. But even if certain crops can be grown safely, other problems — especially the health risks of working contaminated soils and the expense of testing products for PFAS — mean that this is not an option for all farmers.

Removing PFAS from livestock

Animals bioaccumulate PFAS at high concentrations, but they do eventually pass them through their bodies. This means that animals that have been exposed to PFAS through feed or water can be cleared of the chemicals over time if they receive clean feed and water. The half-life for PFAS in these cases — the amount of time it takes animals to eliminate half of the PFAS in their bodies — varies by species, as well as by the type and concentration of PFAS they were exposed to. For cows, the most common PFAS have a half-life of around 3 months, meaning it can sometimes take months or years for levels to reach undetectable status.92 Preliminary studies suggest that remediation may take several years for pigs, while laying hens exposed to PFAS in feed were found to produce eggs with undetectably low PFAS levels in as few as 10 days.93 94

After PFAS were discovered at Stoneridge Farm, the Stones were initially able to get their dairy cows back into production: They removed the cows from the contaminated fields and sourced feed from an outside farm, eventually bringing the PFAS levels in the milk to “non-detect” status. Oakhurst Dairy, the regional milk supplier, resumed buying their milk.

When the PFAS levels in the milk began to rise once again, it was one of the keys to understanding how many factors were contributing to Maine’s PFAS crisis. This time, the source was not sludge but the new feed, which had been presumed to be PFAS-free.

Helping farmers through the PFAS crisis

For the first few farmers who found PFAS on their farms starting in 2016, there was almost no information available about what PFAS contamination meant for their land or how to go about fixing it. Government agencies gave little support, and the farmers were left with few financial options for moving forward, with loan providers unwilling to work with so many unknowns. The Stones once again attempted to remediate their herd, and the feed, now sourced from a third farm, was once again found to be contaminated. After this second failed effort, the Stones had no choice but to declare bankruptcy. Nordell and Davis, and other farmers in Maine, have faced similar situations, with at least five farms in the state going bankrupt after ceasing operations because of PFAS.

Since then, thanks to the hard work of farmers and advocates, the prospects for farmers in Maine have improved. The state’s Department of Environmental Protection has clearer information and more resources for farmers. The Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA) and the Maine Farmland Trust are jointly administering a PFAS emergency relief fund to support farmers, paying for testing, mental health support, income replacement and farm infrastructure like water filters.95 These kinds of programs are critical as farmers assess whether or not they can feasibly keep farming on their land.

At the federal level, Maine’s congressional delegation has introduced the Relief for Farmers Hit with PFAS Act, which would implement similar provisions nationwide through the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The bill proposes financial support for affected farms, free blood monitoring for farmers and their families and grants for farmers to install water filters and other infrastructure upgrades, along with money for PFAS remediation research. So far the bill has attracted bipartisan support and been endorsed by the American Farm Bureau Federation, the country’s largest conventional-farm lobbying group.96

What you can do about PFAS

Despite ample data demonstrating the negative health impacts of PFAS, there is relatively little official guidance available on how people can reduce their own exposure. Because PFAS are so widespread in the environment — and because testing is virtually inaccessible for the average citizen — it’s difficult to accurately gauge your own exposure to PFAS in your day-to-day life. Still, there are personal actions you can take to reduce your PFAS exposure, especially as it relates to food packaging and the household goods you purchase. And there is still reason to not support the production of other PFAS-containing products, even those that don’t meaningfully increase your exposure risk, because of all the PFAS released into the environment during manufacturing.

Consider skipping takeout

In the absence of regulations or labeling requirements, there’s no sure way to know whether or not food packaging contains PFAS — but takeout containers and other disposable food service items are among the most common sources that present a risk of PFAS ingestion. So far, there are no commercially available certifications for PFAS-free packaging that meet a reliable and scientifically determined standard. Unless a business has stated a commitment to avoiding PFAS in their packaging (and can provide independent verification of these efforts), the best way to minimize food-related PFAS exposure is to avoid takeout or bring your own reusable cups and other serviceware when you can.

Avoid buying products made with PFAS

Some common products that often contain PFAS include:

  • Dental floss97
  • Shampoo
  • Shaving creams
  • Lotions
  • Makeup, including mascara, foundation, lipstick and eyeliner98
  • Dishwasher and laundry detergent99

Several organizations — including the Environmental Working Group and the Center for Environmental Health — have compiled directories to help you seek out PFAS-free versions of these products.100101102 When shopping for cosmetics and personal care items that have the ingredients listed, scanning for words that include “fluoro” or “perfluoro” can help indicate the presence of PFAS, as these are common components of the chemical names (though they can be found in other chemical names as well).103

Some household products that are made with PFAS — like nonstick cookware — don’t necessarily raise your risk of PFAS exposure when used appropriately. (Cookware shouldn’t be heated to temperatures above 500 degrees Fahrenheit or cleaned with abrasive tools, for example.) But their manufacturing process is still one of the biggest drivers of the PFAS crisis. Some of these products can also leach PFAS into your home environment over time or with misuse. Consider cutting out products that are made with PFAS, like:

  • Stain-proof fabrics
  • Waterproof fabrics
  • Nonstick cookware

The Natural Resources Defense Council has assembled a PFAS scorecard for fabric and clothing retailers and apparel brands, making it transparent whether companies have or have not committed to selling products that are PFAS-free.104

Installing effective home water filters

PFAS testing for water is available, though expensive. If you’re concerned about PFAS exposure through your drinking water, purchasing a filter that uses either reverse osmosis or activated carbon technology can filter out a large percentage of PFAS, although the effectiveness of these filters varies based on the quality of the product and how well it is maintained.105 The Environmental Working Group has a guide to water filters that can help you make a selection.106

Get involved with local action on PFAS

Many environmental and consumer safety advocacy organizing groups have campaigned to raise awareness about PFAS and get legislation moving on a national scale. Groups like Defend Our Health (for whom former Maine farmer Nordell is now a campaigner), Toxic-Free Future, the Environmental Defense Fund, the Environmental Working Group and the Natural Resources Defense Council have worked hard to investigate PFAS contamination, hold companies accountable for their PFAS-related pledges and support legislation around the country.

Important contributions have also come from local chapters of advocacy groups or state and local organizations. Safer States, a chemical safety advocacy group, represents an array of partner organizations from several states working to end PFAS production. Agriculture-related organizations like the MOFGA and the Maine Farmland Trust have been instrumental in organizing financial support for struggling farmers, as well as pushing for a federal safety net for the farmers around the country who will surely be impacted in the future. Consider getting involved with or donating to similar organizations in your area.


Though PFAS manufacturers have known for decades about the dangers of these chemicals, public awareness of their impacts has only just started to gain momentum. As cities and states discover PFAS in their water supplies, and as more farms discover PFAS in their milk, meat or produce, the full scope of this crisis will only expand. Still, even as we grapple with the harsh reality that PFAS are both everywhere and with us forever, it’s important to remember that the situation is not hopeless.

As public knowledge and outrage about PFAS grow, policymakers will have more support from constituents in measures that restrict PFAS manufacturing. And with a growing number of lawsuits against chemical companies moving forward, manufacturers are already feeling the financial squeeze from their continued production of these high-liability chemicals. The PFAS already extant in the environment will never degrade naturally, but scientists are working to find ways to prevent them from circulating further — an effort that can be supplemented by common-sense policies like mandating PFAS testing in sewage sludge and limiting how it can be spread on land.

It’s too late for many farmers, like the Stones. Though they are working with the Maine government to get their herd of cows PFAS-free, they do not plan to continue as dairy farmers themselves. The initial discovery and multiple failed remediation attempts have taken a toll: “Fred and Laura Stone are just too beat up, banged up, bloodied up, bruised up,” says Fred. “My wife and I have suffered mentally, financially and emotionally. But you know, we did the right thing, and we would do it in a heartbeat again.”

Their story and others like it have helped move the needle in Maine, where PFAS in the food system has been most thoroughly investigated. There has been impressive statewide action in PFAS testing, remediation and regulation, as well as creating a safety net for impacted farmers. This work has been led by farmers, farming organizations and advocates who have set a road map for how to take action against PFAS, one that will be invaluable as advocates and concerned citizens push local, state and federal governments to do more to protect people from PFAS in food and water.

Top photo by Shmel/Adobe Stock.

Researched and written by:

Hide References

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