Tip of the Iceberg - PFAS Chemicals

David Trammel's picture

I wonder how many other farms are hiding this contamination? Especially now that fertilizer is going to be hard to come by.

"‘I don’t know how we’ll survive’: the farmers facing ruin in Maine’s ‘forever chemicals’ crisis"

"Songbird Farm’s 17 acres (7 hectares) hold sandy loam fields, three greenhouses and cutover woods that comprise an idyllic setting near Maine’s central coast. The small organic operation carved out a niche growing heirloom grains, tomatoes, sweet garlic, cantaloupe and other products that were sold to organic food stores or as part of a community-supported agriculture program, where people pay to receive boxes of locally grown produce. Farmers Johanna Davis and Adam Nordell bought Songbird in 2014. By 2021 the young family with their three-year-old son were hitting their stride, Nordell said.

But disaster struck in December. The couple learned the farm’s previous owner had decades earlier used PFAS-tainted sewage sludge, or “biosolids”, as fertilizer on Songbird’s fields. Testing revealed their soil, drinking water, irrigation water, crops, chickens and blood were contaminated with high levels of the toxic chemicals.

Public health advocates say Songbird is just the tip of the iceberg as Maine faces a brewing crisis stemming from the use of biosolids as fertilizer. The state has begun investigating more than 700 properties for PFAS contamination. Few results are in yet but several farmers’ independent testing revealed high PFAS levels, and statewide contamination has disrupted about 10 farms. Farmers who spoke with the Guardian say other growers have admitted to hiding PFAS contamination because they fear economic ruin.

Maine is hardly alone. It is finding more contamination because it’s doing more testing, experts say. All sludge contains some level of PFAS, and farms across the country have increasingly used the substance as fertilizer in recent decades. Michigan, one of the only other states to monitor biosolids and to test agricultural products, recently discovered PFAS-contaminated beef. “Many other states are going to be facing what Maine is facing now,” said Nancy Raine, secretary for Sierra Club’s wastewater residuals team. “Who is responsible for the harm done – the loss of livelihoods and property values?"

This is sad, but not unexpected as we've been busily poisoning ourselves for 100's of years.

If it comes to starving or eating PFAS chemicals, you'll eat the possibly contaminated produce.

If there are no fertilizers, what do you want to do? Eat sunshine and dreams?

Why are there PFAS in sewage? And, umm... what exactly are PFAS? I know there's heavy metals in sewage, and assorted other nasty things, but I don't know where they come from, except the lead. Does anyone know why?

Given we're almost certainly going to have to use humanure as fertilizer globally once the inorganic stuff runs out, especially if we're cutting down on animal agriculture at all, this is a serious problem.

mountainmoma's picture

The problem is what gets sent to a sewage treatment plant. If you collect your waste matter at the household level, or municipally like China used to do, night soil from a container in front of households, then it is just human waste, it is not from the sewage plant. For safe home use look for the book the Humanure Handbook or the online website.

So all wastewater is sent to the sewage treatment plant, well a realy large factory likely has its own treatment plant, but for a city, there is household toilet water, laundry water, sink water, water from resteraunts and other small businesses. This depends on the location, some water treatment plants will have rule for some businesses to pretreat. Even at teh household level, people pour all kinds of stuff down the sink or into the toilet.

" They were used extensively in products such as stain and water protectants, nonstick cookware, food wrappers and coated paper. When products like clothing in which PFOS is present are washed, the contaminant ends up in the waste stream. Furthermore, because everyone has these in their systems from environmental exposure, we eliminate them through feces and urine. "

since I do not buy non-stick cookware, or stain resistant uphostry or clothing and minimize food packaging, I likely do not have much leaving my waste water.

The best solution is to stop making the unneeded toxic gunk and spreading around our home environment to begin with ! Buy in bulk. DO not buy in plastic packaging or buy fast food with the wierd wrappings. Likely you will need to get meat or cheese wrapped in plastic, but do not buy prepared foods etc....

We try to come up with all these expensive monitering or removal techniques. We have to treat health issues. When all we have to do is to STOP using this crap. -- so easy

Ken's picture

I agree 100%. If no one would buy or use PFAS containing products, businesses would stop using it in manufacturing. The 'Humanure Handbook' is available as a free download. Like the children's book says, "Everybody Poops" and like I say, everybody should take responsibility for their poop! As well as being a good metaphor, it's also really easy and affordable. The first composting toilet I put together for our yurt works so well that I was left wondering why I had spent $15,000 on a code-compliant septic system at my house!


Ken's picture

In order for agriculture to be human scale, it really needs to be thought of as gardening, not an industrial process with industrial scale monocultures and ammonia based nitrogen 'fertilizers'. Nitrogen produces green growth in plants, no doubt about it, but it DOES NOT produce nutritious plants, fruits and seeds for us to eat. For that, we need healthy SOIL with adequate mineralization and sufficient phosphorus and potassium for flowering and fruiting. Phosphorus and potassium are found in seeds and insects. In fact, it may be possible that raising insects for fertilizer could be an energy efficient way to concentrate soil and plant nutrients to compensate for our harvesting.

A modest flock of hens that are left to forage in a natural environment will pay for themselves many times over with their manure, which they do deposit in inconvenient locations, like the porch steps, but they also poop a lot at night on the roost, which is easy to collect and keep dry. And you get eggs and an occasional pot of chicken soup! They also will eat a remarkable variety of scraps and garden waste, as well as things you drag home... I bring trash cans of seaweed with lots of sand fleas (small crustaceans) in it for the chickens to scratch through and they just love it!

There are also deep rooted plants such as comfrey and bull thistle that bring up micro nutrients from deep below the root zone of most annual garden crops that can be composted. My point being that it is NOT necessary to rely on artificial chemical based fertilizers to feed ourselves IF everyone is gardening responsibly. Corporate/chemical/industrial agriculture is simply a way for capitalism to horn in on that most basic of human activities; trying to get enough to eat.

PFAS stands for per- and polyfluoralkyl substances. They were historically known as PFCs, for per- and polyfluorinated compounds. These chemicals were only banned in their 8-carbon form--they are currently in wide use in their 6-carbon form. It's not *just* Teflon, Scotchgard, Gore-Tex, microwave popcorn bags, 30% of all food wrappers tested and hundreds of other products--they're in makeup, sunscreen, shampoo and shaving cream (in testing, researchers found 13 different PFAS chemicals in nearly 200 products from 28 brands). Look for any ingredient with “fluoro” in the name--it is likely one of these highly toxic chemicals.

They end up in the water, because they never degrade--and everything eventually ends up in the water. Wastewater treatment and drinking water treatment does not remove them! Also, these chemicals leech from landfills or have been intentionally dumped by manufacturers for decades, dumping the chemicals straight into the water table and aquifers. As a result, these chemicals get pumped straight into millions of American's houses through the plumbing. Cheers! You can't taste or smell them, but you can get cancer, thyroid disease and birth defects from drinking your water. I'm sorry to say, thinking you can avoid these by using simple strategies such as 'buying in bulk' cannot protect you.


mountainmoma's picture

OK, but we can keep from releasing more by not using them any more ! No-one needs microwave popcorn, and non-stick pans and stain resistant clothes when this is the result. I dont use commercial shampoos and all the rest either, havent for decades, we do not need these new and improved products.

In JMG newly updated book The Retro Future, shaving is a detailed example he goes into. He says a safety razor, brush and soap with hot water is more enjoyable, better, and cheaper. ANd that the foam spray cans cause all kinds of environmental problems. Again, we need to stop using it. Period. Same for makeups that have bad ingredients and chemical sunscreens. Olive oil, beeswax and red beet makes a great lip balm, you can even put it in a cardbord tube, you can even buy it done this way.

We can keep from making a situation worse

Have you stopped buying any of these products ? Have you told your family and friends ?

There are other bad chemicals too. Best to just not use anything suspect. Lots of those long chemical words, dont buy it.

I just had to replace couches and mattresses after the wildfire and good choices are still out there, I have futon couches, the frames are amish made oak with a rubbed on oil finish, the futons are organic cotton and wool with a microinnerspring core, the covers are organic cotton ( the cat hair sticks like crazy to these cotton smooth covers though -- cant have everything I guess) The price was comprable to other couches and good futon sets. A good futon frame like this has the long pieces one piece of solid wood, I have seen how soon the good looking shellaced fingerjointed long pieces like that fail. We had one, bought used, one of hte first sleep overs, futon is deployed 2 very petite miiddle school girls sit on it, down it goes. The mattresses are inner spring with organic cotton and wool padding and an organic cotton cover. Not chemical fire retardants. No outgassing chemicals. No manufacturing chemicals into a water supply.

The reason a small layer of wool is used on these uphoulstered items is that the wool is a natural fire retardant. A layer of x amount thick, its not alot, qualifies it to be sold legally without chemical fire retardants.

Cast iron pans cook better, last for generations, and also do not have those chemicals on them or during manufacturing.

My scalp is in such better shape since I stopped shampoo use of all types. If I had grease stuck in it I would spot treat with alittle soap.

Chemical makeup is not worth mine or the environments health. I grew up shaving with just some regular soap on my skin to lubricate. I make my own soap or buy local made non-chemical.

Maybe we can take a green wizards vow to at least stop the chemical gunk madness ourselves ?

agreed on all counts. I don't shave, don't use makeup, don't use commercial soap or shampoo, haven't bought anything new in multiple decades, etc etc. I have lived this way since 1981....but the amount of pollution dumped out by corporations can't be ignored, and impacts millions and millions of people without their knowledge and beyond our ability to control. How do we get a handle on that?

mountainmoma's picture

Educate the people. I dunno, we did this with makeup tested on bunny eyes. Seems like such campaigns could be done again.

My DIL works at a non-profit, her's is river health by us, she writes grants, gets funding for the groups salaries and the work they do. Last win for them was that now when all houses in the city are sold, the sewer connection from the house to the city line has to be inspected and if needed fixed. Alot of old housing stock and her groups testing of the water at teh various location down the river show that sewage is leaking in. Not yours and my battle, but the point is, that a few people can promote a good cause and make change. They also have lots of cute signage for other things, there is no dog poop fairy with a fairy on sturday metal signs on the trails by the river. Murals by storm drains, etc... education of school children, native planting by the river.

Local and personal action does make a difference. Easiest if you can get a couple like minded people to join you. Make popcorn in the park on a protable propane burner, hand it out in little paper sacks, along with your leaflet about the hidden dangers of these PF.... chemicals that wont ever go away, and isnt popped corn better anyways ? I had alot of fun making cookies in a solar oven and handing out to people at a park. Good times.

Then there is in front of the fast food places, the leaflet on the horrible effects, ask McDonalds to change wrappers! In 50s and likely 60s fast food wrappers and cups had a wax coating not this weird bad plastic chemical coating. We had wrappings before the bad stuff was phased in, what was it ? Looks like there IS a group on it about the wrappers, link is here. That is great, then you can print out information they have, and their link for the people you hand your flyer to to go to their page and sign their petition to the FDA. https://www.ewg.org/research/many-fast-food-wrappers-still-coated-pfcs-k... They say " PFC-free paper is readily available, as shown by the fact that the tests detected no fluorine in more than half of the paper samples. Depending on location, individual fast food restaurants or regional franchise groups in the same chain may get their wrappers and containers from different suppliers. So parent corporations may not know if outlets are using PFC-coated paper or if suppliers are accurately disclosing whether their paper contains such chemicals. " So, lots of room to make change, alternatives exist. The large fast food places, it wouldnt take much for them to ensure they buy the correct wrappers.

Tell your circle of family friends of the issue, show them what easy alternatives you have found.

Set up a table in front of the grocery store, show the good alternatives and where to buy it. SHow people how easy it is to protect their children. I was one of the people in front of stores for Beyond War decades ago about the whole Nuclear Weapon Mutually Assured Destruction thing. None of us had degrees or specialities, just the common data it was easy to get. We werent the only ones saying this. Guess what, we did step back from the brink with Russia. This is on the ground work. But it does feel good too to know you are doing something about the cause that is near and dear to your heart. If this one is the one most near and dear to your heart, you can absolutely make a difference

It is not beyond our ability to control. The only way to do this kind of pushback is to do it from the ground up

My same DIL when in college, her thesis was working on the campaign about the toxicity of the chemicals used on upholstry for flame retardants. And, as I said, a wool layer is one safe alternative. But the chemicals for that do not go way. Her major was environmental analysis engineering degree. There realy are alot of young people who can test and run numbers, grant writing is important, maybe more so.

But, even without those specialties, you can gather the already done studies and present to your local government, city county to ask that the local rules demand phased in change on these products. We did it for plastic bags and plastic straws, it could be done for bad food wrappers !

mountainmoma's picture

I am lucky to have a well and I am on top of the mountain here. But, I did participate in a CA initiative to test wells for agricultural contaminants and other chemical contaminants. So, my water is good.

But I do not want everyone elses water tainted like this !

There is also Rocket fuel, Semiconductor manufacturing got into the silicon valley water supply back in the day, which is why none is manufactured there anymore. But it is done somewhere. Even when you filter out contaminants before going out to the water system, then people like me have to wonder, what are you doing with that now contaminated filter medium ?

JMG's retro future book is right, all of these things we do have a cost on the system.

Some worse than others of course.

And, the other point being that proper consideration and ammeliorization of such things makes for very expensive products.

We need to get more back to basics and away from causing these problems and we should start in our own lives

mountainmoma's picture

Another data point for durable, natural materials compared to plastic chemical junk.

I have 3 offspring, all adults now of course. When they were young I also did home daycare, and then friends of theirs came over.

I put durable, natural simple toys in the attic.

Last year I pulled down my 34yolds glider rocking horse that has been thru so many years of children use. I gave it a light sanding, rubbed it with oil, and glued in some natural wool yard for a new mane and tail. Gave it to her daughter. No signs of giving up. The older kids used to rock that so hard the feet left the floor.

Last month I brought up the little cabinet and ply stove top. Another light cleaning with mild sandpaper and an oil rub. My granddaughter is estatic.

We need to get away from polluting throw away junk. Last week they left my attic with the wooden cars and little peg people.

Soft goods, fabric do not last the same. I knitted a little wool donkey, stuffed with wool for her when she was born. Those types of things do have to be done new each child I think given what kids put their lovies thru.

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alice's picture

Typically the heavy metals etc are in sewage sludge because drains are using to dispose of chemicals such as paint. Habits are beginning to change but a lot has been poured down drains in the past and ended up on agricultural land that way. (Whoops, replied before I saw other comments on the thread, apologies for repeating your point mountainmoma)