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Changing the landscape: Remove forever chemicals from food

The latest sustainability talk hosted by the Mitchell Center focused on per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), the “forever chemical” in Maine. A recent Washington Post article followed the story of Songbird Farm, located in Unity, Maine, where “water tests revealed levels of PFAS that were higher than Maine’s state guideline.” PFAS threaten the livelihood of farmers throughout our state; products are pulled when extreme levels of PFAS are present, therefore making them unsellable. While this is a pressing issue in Maine, the problem of PFAS contamination exists throughout the country. Increased discussions are vital in ensuring that legislation is passed to better regulate PFAS in Maine and throughout the country. 

PFAS are nicknamed the “forever chemical” due to the chemical bonds that inhibit their decay for over 15 years in the human body and centuries in the environment. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, PFAS are present in human and animal blood, air, fish, water and soil across the nation. Since the 1950s, these substances have been used in food packaging, shampoo bottles and more. While current research is seeking to understand the full implications of PFAS on human health, it is certain that long exposure to PFAS has damaging outcomes on our health. 

A large source of the PFAS on farms is the contamination of sewer treatment plant wastewater sludge, which is used as fertilizer. While the FDA prohibits the use of biosolids in organic farming, conventional farmers can still use sludge that is unknowingly contaminated by PFAS. Due to its persistence in the environment, new farm owners may not even know of its presence upon their purchase of the land. Each PFAS test is $500, making it cost-prohibitive for many farmers. Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners (MOFGA) has created an emergency relief fund to assist farmers with buying these tests. They are also at the forefront of the movement by providing education to the community and pressuring people to talk to legislators about passing regulation and safety laws. 

“At this time, there is no reason to believe that food grown in Maine, conventional or organic, is at any higher risk for PFAS contamination than products grown elsewhere,” MOFGA stated on their website. “For myriad reasons, supporting local agriculture remains as important now as ever.” 

Nationally, the regulation of PFAS has remained weak in the past decades, but Maine has passed significant legislation targeting these chemicals. As of April 11, the Maine State Legislature passed LD 1911, a bill that prohibits sludge application on state lands and requires licensed personnel to sample wastewater for PFAS. LD 2019, still awaiting a final vote in the chamber, prevents the application of pesticides that contain PFAS. LD 2013 would “establish a dedicated $100 million safety net for farmers affected by PFAS.” LD 2013 continues to face further voting. 

If we hope to see a change in food regulation, we need to demand federal and state action. While Maine has made meaningful steps to regulate PFAS, acknowledging that this is a national issue is important. Currently, there are no federal limitations on PFAS in food. Contact your state leaders and voice your concerns about PFAS contamination and its effects on public health. Ultimately, health concerns resulting from long-term exposure to PFAS are preventable. Remaining aware of local and national agricultural news benefits not only one’s health but the well-being of one of Maine’s longest-standing industries.


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