CLOVIS, N.M. (DTN) -- Food may be the next frontier in research on a wide array of potentially toxic chemicals increasingly showing up in drinking water and groundwater nationally.
Art Schaap and Fred Stone milk dairy cows more than 2,000 miles from each other, but right now, neither one of them can sell their milk. Both farmers have been dumping their milk for months, and their cows also might never become beef, depending on how federal agencies determine safe or low-risk levels of chemicals in their cows.
Their farms are in limbo because of contamination from a collection of roughly 5,000 chemicals in the environment that were made to use in a broad array of products, ranging from non-stick pans to foam used to fight fires. The family of synthetic chemicals, known as perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, collectively known as "PFAS" chemicals, have been around since the 1940s. But only in recent years have they been dubbed as "emerging contaminants" because these fluorochemicals -- also called PFOA or PFOS -- are not only toxic, but they just don't go away. PFAS chemicals will move with water and remain in it. They are sometimes called "forever chemicals."
Cannon Air Force Base, located near Clovis, also maintained a fire-fighting training facility. Since 1970, the Air Force, commercial airports and hazardous-material teams have used a special foam made of PFAS chemicals for fighting petroleum fires. The foam worked great on fires, but it leached into the ground. At Cannon, the foam chemicals over time meandered their way into the Ogallala Aquifer. Eventually, the chemicals made it into Schaap's water supply for his cows and crops.
SHUTTING DOWN A DAIRY
The Air Force initially started testing wells just outside of Cannon Air Force Base. The southern and eastern edges of the base are covered with dairies, including Schaap's 4,000-head Highland Dairy. Schaap's seven wells for his dairy farm have tested as much as 300 times higher for PFAS than the EPA lifetime advisory health level, which is 70 parts per trillion.
Schaap hasn't been able to sell milk from the dairy since last October. He had to let go of all but a handful of the 40 workers who used to manage the farm. A skeleton crew now feeds the cows, milks them and then dumps roughly 15,000 gallons of milk a day into a waste pond.
To get his dairy back to selling milk, Schaap said he would have to install filters that cost about $250,000 per well and can cost as much as $50,000 a year to manage because filters have to be disposed of at a toxic waste facility. He would have to put filters on ground pumps for crops, as well, because PFAS also is in his soil, having been pumped from the aquifer.
"So when you feed your cows, it gets into them," Schaap said. "That means this could happen again, and if my animals and my feed get exposed again, someone is going to have to guarantee me that it won't happen. So is my farm still good for agricultural use?"
Schaap is farming the ground, separating the feed grains and trying to see what crops could grow that would not pass PFAS through to the food supply. "But I grow feed for animals," he said. "I'm not a cotton farmer."
USDA is paying Schaap about 75% of the value of the milk he is dumping every day. That covers the cost of feeding his cows, which are under quarantine. He's also not allowed to sell the cows for beef.
The Air Force has largely focused on water for human consumption and is giving Schaap's dairy bottled water for people. The Air Force so far has declined to consider supporting the dairies even though some of them have spent money for filters. Other area dairies are testing and paying for treatment, said James Beard, an environmental geologist with Glorieta Geoscience Inc., which is consulting with the area dairy operations.
"The Air Force has flat-out refused to help in any way, shape or form," Beard said. "The testing levels on Art's farm was a good enough number to put Art out of business, but it's not good enough for the Air Force to pay for screening or filtration."
Schaap said he sees few options for the dairy other than for the Air Force to pay for mitigating the clean-up costs or buy the operation.
"We've got to have the tools in the toolbox to clean it up, whatever it takes -- filters, land acquisition whatever it needs to be -- and that's what we're going to push for," Schaap said.
After discovering high levels of PFAS in Schaap's milk supply, New Mexico officials realized the federal government doesn't have any standards on PFAS contamination in food. The Food and Drug Administration also didn't have a protocol to test milk until New Mexico officials asked for one.
New Mexico is at the forefront of figuring out how to handle PFAS contamination in food.
"This is now an emerging issue we're dealing with in the food supply," said Jeff Witte, New Mexico's secretary of agriculture.
CENTURY DAIRY RUINED
Fred Stone's family has been milking cows for more than a century near Arundel, Maine. In the fall of 2016, the city of Kennebunkport, Maine, notified him they had high PFAS levels in water coming out of the same aquifer he uses. Stone notified state officials about the potential problem. He had some tests come back as high as 1,400 parts per trillion.
"The state didn't test for this, and we were told by a number of different people that we should have just kept our mouths shut, but of course you could not do that," Stone said. "It has ruined us as a farm. My grandfather and my father milked cows here for more than 100 years."
For more than two years, Stone replaced almost his entire herd and started buying his feed from out of state. He was selling milk off and on, but another test came back above a 210-parts-per-trillion level set by Maine officials. He lost his milk contract after that. His last test was at 189 ppt. He can get his license back, but that's only half the battle.
"We can get our license back, but the way things are in the wonderful world of dairy, once you lose your market, it is awful hard to find another one."
Stone's contamination came from city sludge from a wastewater treatment plant he spread on his 100-acre farm until around 2004. He said it was a common practice and state officials encouraged using sludge. Stone said dozens of farmers in his area used the product for decades.
It wasn't until last month that Stone's story became public when he held a press conference with environmental and public-health advocates. Suddenly, state officials began warning water treatment facilities that sludge could no longer be used as fertilizer unless it was tested first for contamination.
"We've been going through this for 36 months now, and I would not wish this on my worst enemy," Stone said. "It just breaks my heart, it really does."
FIGURING OUT A PROTOCOL
Once ingested, chemicals in the PFAS, PFOS and PFOA families remain in organs for a long time. The chemicals are associated with a growing number of risks, including testicular cancer, kidney cancer, thyroid cancer, high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis and pregnancy-induced hypertension. The chemicals are considered more dangerous for pregnant women and young children.
Because of the quarantine, Schaap can't just cull his cows for beef. USDA currently has no protocols or standards to determine if PFAS is in meat, or how much is too much.
USDA's Agricultural Research Service is now studying Schaap's cattle to create some baseline data because the concentration of PFAS chemicals in U.S. beef cattle is unknown. USDA has drawn plasma from 120 cattle and sent the plasma to an Agricultural Research Service facility in Fargo, North Dakota, for analysis. USDA also is working with New Mexico State University to buy a mix of lactating cows, dry cows, heifers and calves to draw blood tissue from the animals at different times to study PFAS depletion in the cattle. That study just began in early March. (https://www.ars.usda.gov/…)
Witte said his office is talking with someone from FDA and USDA on a weekly basis to determine when FDA and USDA will provide some standards. Then there is the question of possibly contaminated feed that FDA is being asked to look into.
"Clovis and this area is like the first area of the country that has had a tremendous agricultural impact. So all of that is in play," Witte said. "But since this is an emerging issue, just know all of these protocols from EPA, USDA and FDA are in the process."
PFAS AN EMERGING CONTAMINANT
Clovis also is not exactly the first agricultural area affected. As far back as 1998, a Parkersburg, West Virginia, farm family sued DuPont Co. because the family's cattle were dying from unknown illnesses. The court case revealed PFAS chemicals from a local DuPont plant that made Teflon -- one of the most common products derived from PFAS chemicals -- had caused widespread water contamination. DuPont has faced more than 3,500 lawsuits over the Parkersburg facility since then, including a case filed by the state of Ohio earlier this year.
DuPont and 3M, which were the largest manufacturers of various PFAS products, continue to face litigation as water supplies are discovered as contaminated.
An EPA scientific advisory panel determined perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) was "likely to be carcinogenic in humans." In 2014, EPA identified PFAS chemicals as "emerging contaminants," meaning the agency saw a greater threat to health risks. Two years later, EPA set a health advisory guideline for PFAS with a lifetime exposure at 70 parts per trillion, or 0.07 milligrams per liter.
Since then, EPA has been grappling with how to determine cleanup standards. In late April, EPA came out with a "draft interim guidance" for cleanup that already has been widely panned by both environmentalists and lawmakers.
"The EPA is not doing what they should be doing in setting appropriate standards for PFAS. They are going the opposite direction," Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., told a Michigan television station earlier this week. "There's just no excuse for this," she added.
Nationally, municipalities and water utilities are not required to test for PFAS chemicals. There would also would be no legal obligation to follow the EPA's guidance.
"There's no official drinking water limit right now," said David Andrews, a senior scientist with the Environmental Working Group. "If there was, PFAS would be considered hazardous substances and they would have to set clean-up remediation" under laws such as the Superfund law. "It (EPA's draft) is about as far removed from taking the action that people need."
Colorado lawmakers just passed legislation banning the sale of PFAS foams for firefighting. At least five states -- California, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey and Vermont -- now have adopted water limits significantly lower than EPA guidance.
"The trend with the states seems to be to go much lower than 70 parts per trillion," said James Kenney, New Mexico's secretary of environment.
New Mexico's position is that the Air Force should take the lead on cleaning up PFAS contamination near its two air bases in the state where contamination has been found. New Mexico officials filed a lawsuit against the Air Force in early March.
"We feel that litigation is probably the quickest way possible for that result," Kenney said. "We're going to use the lawsuit to compel the Air Force to clean up the groundwater."
OTHER STATES CONTAMINATED
While New Mexico and Maine have found contaminated dairies, they are far from alone in finding PFAS contamination.
PFAS chemicals at levels above EPA's standard have been found in water supplies in Alabama, Alaska, California, Colorado, Michigan, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. The town of Fairbanks, Alaska, recently filed a suit against 3M, which was one of the major producers of PFAS, along with the former DuPont Co.
In Michigan, state officials last year started testing more than 1,100 city water services and found more than 100 towns with some level of contamination. The Detroit Free-Press reported last week at least 49 cities and towns have tested above EPA's 70 ppt level. The paper reported incidences of tap water testing as much as 76,000 parts per trillion.
Michigan has gone on full alert to test and study the impact of the chemicals, but research on food and agriculture are just beginning. So far, Michigan's Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD) has not found food contamination.
"Based on a number of worldwide studies of the overall food supply, MDARD doesn't have any reason to suspect food contamination unless it's associated with a specific contamination site," a spokeswoman for the department stated in an email to DTN. "Thus far, there haven't been any dairy farms or processing plants impacted by a known site."
Michigan officials, however, have warned people about eating fish or deer meat coming from areas near contaminated waterways.
Researchers in Michigan are beginning to look at food-related impacts, Hui Li, an associate professor of Environmental and Soil Chemistry, said in an email to DTN.
"This is another exposure pathway to humans. We need to know whether and how much PFAS could enter agricultural produce. If yes, what are the sources for PFAS to enter agricultural produce? In fact, Michigan State University has funded us to begin this type of work," Li stated.
Jamie DeWitt, an associate professor of pharmacology and toxicology at East Carolina University, told DTN in an interview that researchers are continuing to learn more about the health effects of PFAS chemicals.
"We understand there are health effects associated with exposure, but the way these chemicals produce the health effects is what we're still trying to understand," DeWitt said. "If somebody takes PFAS into their body over the course of a lifetime and develops a disease, how exactly does that exposure lead to the disease? How do the chemicals work in the body to try to produce the disease? That's something we're still examining."
On May 1, EPA awarded $3.9 million, split between the Colorado School of Mines and Oregon State University, to better understand PFAS exposure to the environment and people. EPA stated the studies "will also promote a greater awareness of how to restore water quality in PFAS-impacted communities."
Meeting with state officials on April 29, Wesley Myers, who farms about 900 acres of corn and wheat near Cannon AFB, worried about the long-term contamination from having spread manure from Schaap's dairy and others.
"If it contaminates the ground and contaminates the crops we raise, that's serious business," Myers said. "If the cow manure is contaminated and you water it into your crop, what does it do to your crop? I think the possibility is there and that concerns me. I think we're just scratching the surface here of the problem is what I'm getting at."
Schaap will be in Washington, D.C., next week with the Environmental Working Group lobbying lawmakers to take stronger action on PFAS. The Environmental Working Group is expected to release an updated map of contamination sites nationally.
"It's going to take legislation to put pressure on EPA," Schaap said. "The current administration, they want to let business do what it wants to do."
Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com
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