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LISTEN: PFAS in agricultural products present challenges for farmers, consumers

A tractor spreads biosolids on farmland
City of Geneva
A tractor spreads biosolids on farmland.

Most of the coverage around PFAS focuses on the toxic “forever chemicals” in drinking water. But contamination of food and agricultural products is still not fully understood.

WCMU's Teresa Homsi recently attended a conference at Michigan State University to learn more about the complexity of this issue.

All Things Considered Host, David Nicholas spoke with Teresa about how PFAS contamination is impacting farms, the latest research and strategies to combat PFAS from entering the food system.

Below is a transcript of their conversation.

David Nicholas: Can you start by explaining how severe contamination in food is?

Teresa Homsi: So, the FDA has tested various crops, dairy, poultry and livestock. And they report out of the [718] samples they’ve taken, 97% of fresh and processed foods don’t contain PFAS.

Seafood and freshwater fish typically have higher levels of contaminants in general. So if we’re thinking about priorities when it comes to PFAS, fish are usually of higher concern.

As far as the scope, there aren’t really any reliable numbers for how many farms are contaminated. But we do know of dozens of cases, where farmers have been shut down across the country.

In Michigan, we have at least two farms that have been impacted by PFAS, but the state says those cases have been isolated incidents.

DN: So, what are the sources of PFAS in food? And how have farmers been affected?

TH: There are a lot of different avenues for PFAS to end up in agricultural products, but I’ll break it down into two main mediums: contaminated soil and water.

PFAS can end up on farmland and in the food chain through the application of biosolids — that’s a type of fertilizer made using the waste leftover from wastewater treatment plants. If a treatment plant receives contaminated water, then the biosolids could also end up polluting farms.

The other way is: if farms happen to be near a contaminated site, their water source could be compromised. And they could unknowingly end up irrigating their crops or supplying their livestock with contaminated water.

It’s important to note that the farmers are not at fault for contamination on their land. And in the cases that it’s happened, it’s just tragic — their livelihoods are destroyed.

DN: What types of policy are in place to protect farmers and consumers?

TH: Since PFAS are considered an “emerging” group of contaminants, especially when it comes to food, there’s not much.

There’s a lot of research being conducted to understand how PFAS are even transferred from contaminated water and soil to crops and livestock, at what levels. And Michigan has stepped up testing on biosolids to limit contamination.

For farmers: there are basically no mechanisms to financially support them or guidance on what they’re supposed to do with their land if it’s highly contaminated.

We also have no federal food safety standards. Maine is the only state that has implemented an “action level” for PFAS in beef and dairy —which means they test those products and if they’re above a certain level, they’ll be pulled from shelves.

Michigan has health advisories for PFAS in fish, but those are just recommendations for consumers.

A lot of states feel it’s the responsibility of the federal government to set those limits and enforce them.

Teresa Homsi is an environmental reporter and Report for America Corps Member based in northern Michigan for WCMU. She covers rural environmental issues, focused on contamination, conservation, and climate change.
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