More Action Needed to Keep Forever Chemicals Out of Maine’s Milk
Our recent work tackling toxic PFAS chemicals (per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances) has taken us from farm fields in rural Maine to the nation’s capital. Here’s a peek into our efforts on the state and national fronts to tackle the growing crisis of PFAS contamination in our food, water, and soil. (Read the previous installments in our “Tackling Toxic PFAS” series here, here, and here.)
Are children and families in Maine drinking milk contaminated with toxic PFAS? Despite recent reassurances from the state, the fact is, we still don’t know.
Two and a half years ago, Maine’s Department of Conservation, Agriculture, and Forestry (DACF) learned that milk from Stoneridge Farm in Arundel, Maine, contained the highest levels of toxic PFOS (a specific PFAS, or per- and perfluoroalkyl substance) ever reported in milk, anywhere. The Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) traced the contamination to the sludge applied to Stoneridge Farm as a fertilizer, a common practice utilized by hundreds of other farms across the state and promoted by DEP.
PFAS chemicals do not belong in our food—but recent testing confirms that vegetables grown in contaminated soil will be contaminated, and animals that eat contaminated food will also be contaminated. PFAS exposure increases the risk of some cancers, may lower a woman’s chance of getting pregnant, and is associated with liver problems and increased cholesterol levels. Plus, PFAS chemicals stay so persistently in human bodies and the environment that they are known as the "forever chemicals."
At the time, while the state worked rapidly to shut down Stoneridge, it made the shocking decision to not test any other farm’s milk or fields for PFAS contamination.
At the Governor’s PFAS task force meeting in June, DACF announced that they have now actually tested other milk for PFAS. The agency tested samples purchased at retail as well as raw milk from three farms for both PFOA and PFOS. All of the levels were below the laboratory’s reporting limit of 50 ppt (parts per trillion). With hyperbole worthy of President Trump, DACF proclaimed these results as “excellent” and as providing “a nice sense of relief.”
Despite DACF’s positive spin on these limited findings, the fact is a lot more testing needs to be done before we can really begin to understand the scope of potential milk contamination in Maine—and buried amongst the “excellent” results was some very disturbing information about PFAS in farm soil.
Most of the data the state reported was from tests of milk purchased off store shelves. This is milk from potentially many farms that has been mixed together at a processing facility—which means this testing is not doing anything to determine if PFAS remains a problem at some farms.
For example, if a bottle of milk at the store represents the contributions of 10 farms, and one of those farms is producing milk with 300 ppt PFAS, in exceedance of even the state’s loose standard, and the other nine are producing milk with 20 ppt, the average would be 48 ppt, or below the lab’s reporting limit.
The state is also not using a health-protective standard.
Maine created its own standard for PFOS in milk, 210 ppt, based on an outdated risk assessment value from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
More recent research, including a 2018 report from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), which is part of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), has suggested a “safe dose” would be about 10 times lower.
Other states that have reviewed the science have also suggested levels about 10 times lower than EPA. In order to truly protect people’s health, based on this more recent data, Maine’s milk standard should likely also be 10 times lower, or closer to 20 ppt.
That’s right. DACF’s “excellent” test results are based on a screening standard that is at least 10 times too high.
Since the lab used by the state only reports out results if they are 50 ppt or higher, we don’t even know if the PFOS levels in the retail milk tested are in exceedance of a truly health protective standard.
This is another reason it is so critical that the state actually test milk from individual farms. Since the state is not measuring PFAS at a low enough level, testing individual farm’s milk will help to better judge if the “average” value is low enough to be health protective.
High Levels in Soil
Buried in the data presented by DACF were test results showing that three farms’ soil had high levels of PFAS contamination.
The PFOS levels in those soils ranged from 5.6 to 20.9 ppb (parts per billion)—all in exceedance of DEP’s screening standard for sludge, which is 5.2. More importantly, they are high enough to warrant concern that hay and possibly corn grown in those soils and used as cow feed may result in milk contamination.
At the May meeting of the PFAS task force, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) presented its preliminary work to develop a standard for PFOS in soil that is protective for growing hay or corn to be used as cow feed. Their goal was to make sure that cows fed with the hay or corn grown in the soil would not produce milk above the state’s 210 ppt milk standard. Their draft number? 3.1 ppb for hay and 6.5 ppb for corn.
In other words, DACF’s “excellent” results show that all three farms they tested have toxic soil—which, if used to grow cow feed, could produce contaminated milk.
Don’t Make Us Say This Again, Please
Since Maine state agencies have thus far failed to listen, we must repeat the requests we first made to the state when we held a press conference at Stoneridge Farm back in March.
The state must immediately move to test other farm fields, end the spreading of the contaminated sludge, and phase out current uses of these “forever chemicals” to keep them from contaminating sewage sludge—and our farms and food—in the first place.