Op-ed: PFAS contamination endangers farmers’ health — a new federal program would empower them to address the crisis

When dozens of Maine farmers discovered high levels of PFAS in their soil and water, our state’s agricultural community found itself on the verge of crisis.

These “forever chemicals” pose a grave risk to our food supply and to the farmers and their families working on contaminated land.

It was clear that we needed solutions, and fast. Farmers, advocates and leaders from across the state came together to develop a statewide response to PFAS contamination. Today, Maine is the first state to launch an emergency relief fund for impacted farmers and ban the use of sludge-based fertilizers that contain these dangerous chemicals. Our state’s response has reversed a hopeless situation for so many: of the 59 farms where PFAS was initially discovered, nearly all were able to weather a safe transition with this safety net in place. Now Congress is considering a federal program modeled after Maine’s emergency relief fund. The Relief for Farmers Hit With PFAS Act would authorize grants for states to provide financial assistance to affected farmers, expand monitoring and testing, remediate PFAS, or even help farmers relocate.

While Maine was the first to confront this problem head-on, the consequences of PFAS contamination extend far beyond our state. For decades, many states have encouraged farmers to spread sewage sludge on fields as fertilizer. Recently, scientists discovered that it contained dangerous chemicals that linger in the environment indefinitely – yet some states haven’t caught up and still push to spread the sludge. Testing for these chemicals is the only way to know if a farm is contaminated, but in the absence of federal guidance or regulations, few states are regularly doing so.

Without adequate monitoring, farmers not only risk financial ruin, but irreversible damage to their health. When PFAS seeps into a farm’s land and water, exposure poses serious health risks for anyone drinking contaminated water or consuming contaminated products, including kidney cancer, liver disease, thyroid disorders and autoimmune disorders. It’s still too early to predict the exact long-term outcomes, but we know it’s only a matter of time until research catches up to reality. One farmer we work with recently reported blood levels of PFAS at 3,500 parts per billion –175 times the level that the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine says poses a serious risk – after years of drinking contaminated water on his farm. The previous owner of the farmland died of a cancer that we now believe may have been PFAS-linked.

Without adequate monitoring, farmers not only risk financial ruin, but irreversible damage to their health.

If we don’t plan for the future, more lives are at stake. If more states don’t begin to test their farmland, this crisis could continue affecting far more communities than we currently know. The good news is, once a farm is tested, there are options for farmers to move forward safely. Overhauling farms to produce different types of grains, fruit or root vegetables can significantly lower the risk of concentrating the chemicals. These transitions are safe, but expensive, and small businesses can’t afford this burden alone. That’s why we need a safety net that gives farmers the healthcare and financial support they need.

Farmers whose land has been contaminated through no fault of their own deserve a fair chance to responsibly maintain their livelihood. So our organization, the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association and Maine Farmland Trust developed an emergency relief fund that provides eligible farmers with all the resources they need: direct support for PFAS testing, short-term income replacement for farmers who were forced to halt sales after discovery, health care and wellness services for those exposed to the harmful chemicals, and infrastructure investments that would allow affected farmers to maintain their livelihoods safely. The initiative was so successful that it became a model for the state’s own emergency relief fund launched earlier this year. It can also be a blueprint for other states and federal lawmakers to follow.

Maine has already proven that it is possible to encourage testing and support safe farm transitions for impacted farmers. We have a robust plan that other advocates and leaders can build on, but states should not have to fight this alone. Our federal leaders must step in and help farmers across the country navigate this pollution crisis.

The bipartisan Relief for Farmers Hit with PFAS Act would do just that – provide a safety net for all of our country’s farmers by providing states with the funding they need to support farmers facing financial hardship after the discovery of PFAS contamination, and health care for those exposed. The next Farm Bill is our opportunity to implement Maine’s proactive approach across the country and ensure farmers have a fair opportunity to work safely and responsibly, and continue to provide for their communities, no matter where they live.

In the meantime, we’re urging the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to step in and regulate the spread of contaminated sludge nationwide. If you care about the health of farmers and the safety of our food supply, you can join us by sending a letter to the EPA here. It’s time to enact meaningful solutions that protect our food system, rural economy and the hardworking, independent farmers that are the backbone of rural communities.