NEBRA Response to Buzzfeed article re PFAS, farms, and food, July 2, 2019

In response to this article, NEBRA sent the following email:


I enjoyed reading your article from yesterday: The findings are encouraging: that PFAS is found in food occasionally, but that contamination is not widespread and is associated locally with highly contaminated sites (e.g. near military bases in CO and NM). The concern is legitimate, and further research makes sense. But, so far, contamination is limited. And academic research has shown that plant uptake of the more concerning, long-chain PFAS (e.g. PFOA and PFOS) is limited. So it takes a very high level of soil contamination – from direct fire-fighting foam or industrial waste discharge – to cause any food contamination from farms. Such sites should be, and are, a priority for investigation and clean-up. Most food contamination (as in the famous chocolate cake) is associated with use of PFAS in food packaging.

Being involved in the biosolids (“sludge”) management profession, we have looked closely at the Maine farm situation, because biosolids are widely recycled across the U. S., and we are the first to want to know if they are causing any issues. (~60% of biosolids produced in the U. S. are beneficially used, valued by farmers and other landowners for their nutrients and organic matter that build healthy soils. Biosolids recycling is generally the best environmental choice because it recycles nutrients, avoids extra fertilizer use, and reduces greenhouse gas emissions, among many benefits.)

The issue at the Stoneridge Farm in Maine is with one chemical - PFOS - that is highly elevated in the soil (though not nearly as high as at military and industrially- contaminated sites). That situation is very much an anomaly, and the issue (tainted milk) there is not caused by municipal biosolids. As you reported, there are now milk test results by Maine Dept. of Ag and others – all showing non–detects, at a total of 4 other farms, each with decades of annual municipal biosolids applications. See the slides from the Maine PFAS Task Force meeting last week (which I assume you have). The data are showing there is no issue for food quality related to municipal biosolids in Maine. More about the full story at the Stoneridge Farm is in our fact sheet at the right side of this page:

What is unfortunate about the Maine farm situation is that a staged news event at the Farm and all subsequent coverage has pointed to municipal biosolids as an issue. This is inaccurate. The Maine DEP investigation showed industrial material is likely the cause of the very high PFOS on the western field at that farm. But the industrial material was not mentioned at the news conference or in the media coverage that has followed. Why? That news conference on the farm was coincidental with filing of a lawsuit that named two municipalities that had provided biosolids to the farm many years ago. I have heard locally, though I don’t know if it is true, that the initial law firm representing the Stones also represented the successor to the industrial facility that also provided sludge to the farm back in the 1980s. That law firm didn’t want to point the finger at their own client. (And the court removed that law firm from the case, because of their conflict of interest.) The lawsuit does not name that industrial facility or even mention that industrial material (I can provide you the court-filed suit, if you want), even though it is clearly discussed in Maine DEP documents pertaining to their investigation (I can send you a Maine DEP presentation with these details). It is unfortunate that coverage of the Stoneridge Farm in Maine continues to perpetuate the myth that municipal biosolids caused the PFOS issue that is crippling the Farm. It is a tragedy, what happened there, but it was not municipal biosolids that caused it. Municipal biosolids contributed some PFAS to the Farm soils, but similar low levels are found on many other farms around the region that have used biosolids for far longer than the Stoneridge Farm did, and the farm products (e.g. milk) are not tainted.

I would be glad to discuss. I think this deserves coverage. Please let me know what you think.

-- Ned Beecher, Special Projects Manager