Tracy Kelly, PFAS public service coordinator for the Maine Department of Environmental Protection’s Bureau of Remediation and Waste Management, speaks Wednesday during a public hearing held at the Augusta Civic Center. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal file

AUGUSTA — Levels of PFAS contamination in livestock can diminish over time as long as farmers remove the source of the contamination from their land, state officials said recently.

As PFAS is discovered at more locations across the state, a primary concern is the impact on Maine farms where contaminated water, soil, or something else, can mean the chemicals transfer to animals and produce.

But by addressing the source of the contamination, PFAS levels in animals can decrease enough that the animal products are safe to consume, according to Duncan Pfaehler, agriculture compliance officer with the state Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry.

Pfaehler spoke last week as part of a PFAS panel discussion held in conjunction with the Maine Agricultural Trades Show at the Augusta Civic Center. Besides DACF, other state agencies also participated in the discussion, including the Maine Board of Pesticides Control and the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.

“Our focus is mainly on what can we do as soon as possible to help farmers, and that’s really where the focus of our research should be,” Pfaehler said.

PFAS, or per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, are a group of synthetic chemicals created in the 1940s. Used in a wide variety of consumer goods, the chemicals have been linked to numerous health impacts. Additionally, the chemicals don’t break down in the body or the environment, earning them the nickname “forever chemicals.”


The contamination in Maine has been linked to the spread of sludge, a wastewater treatment byproduct, which was used as a replacement to fertilizer. When the sludge was spread onto land, it transferred the PFAS into soil and water, and from there the chemicals travel into plants grown on the land, and then into farm animals. But by addressing the contamination — with a water filtration system or tanked water, and clean feed — farmers can remediate the problem, officials said.

In addition to the state standard for drinking water, the state has set standards for the acceptable levels of perfluorooctanesulfonic acid, or PFOS, one type of PFAS, in beef and milk. For milk that level is 210 parts per trillion and for beef it is 3.4 parts per billion.

Pfaehler used the example of a beef farm his department has worked with. DEP found the farm had contaminated water and soil, and further tests by DACF also found low levels in the land used for pasture and high levels in the hayfields. The department also tested some frozen beef the farmer had stored, and found PFAS there, too — in high enough amounts that it could not be sold.

So the department installed a filtration system for the water and brought in clean feed for the cows. Later testing found the PFAS levels fell significantly — below state action levels, and in some cases low enough that no PFAS could be detected.

Pfaehler said the department works with each farm to find unique ways to address the issues created by the contamination.

“It really does come down to the specific farm,” Pfaehler said. “Every farm operates a little bit differently, and so us having a very specific and detailed approach to that farm is really important.”

DACF offers several monetary programs to help farmers, Pfaehler said, including paying for testing, reimbursements if a farm tests privately, paying to install a water filtration system, income replacement and infrastructure investment, to help a farm transition to new practices.

And research has found that not all PFAS impact all animals or produce in the same way, Pfaehler said. Perfluorooctanoic acid, one type of PFAS, does not seem to transfer to beef. And PFOS doesn’t transfer into some produce like asparagus, garlic, potatoes or corn.

“We’re certainly on the leading edge of testing. No other state has taken as intensive approach toward agricultural testing as we have, so it has garnered a lot of attention,” said Nancy McBrady, director of DACF’s Bureau of Agriculture. “However, I don’t believe that we’re going to be solo for much longer. As (Pfaehler) mentioned, we’re talking to many other states, and many other state legislatures are also paying attention. So first and foremost, this is not solely a Maine issue, it is a national issue.”

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