Maine is developing a broad range of safety standards intended to protect the public food system from forever chemicals and determine when local farmers trying to recover from a PFAS crisis can safely return to the market.

Maine already has safety limits for milk and beef, but its hunt for tainted wells and fields at more than 1,000 agricultural sites where sludge was spread as fertilizer has state toxicologists scrambling to set food safety limits for other local crops and livestock, too.

Fred Stone holds on to his brown swiss cow Lida Rose at his Arundel dairy farm in 2019 after a press conference where he spoke about PFAS chemical contamination in his fields and his cows resulting from sludge he had spread on the fields which he was told would help the soils. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Once these safety levels have been set, the state must decide when and how to use them, but one thing is certain – consumers shouldn’t assume the food they buy in the local grocery or farmer’s market is being tested for PFAS.

“Maine just doesn’t have the staffing, funding or testing capacity to screen everything we grow or raise in Maine for PFAS,” said Deputy Agriculture Commissioner Nancy McBrady on Wednesday after briefing a legislative committee about so-called forever chemicals. “Much less what we import into Maine.”

PFAS are a class of over 9,000 manmade chemicals used since the 1950s in industrial and household products like waterproof clothing, non-stick cookware, and firefighting foam. They have been linked to cancer, kidney malfunction, immune system suppression, and pre-eclampsia in pregnant women.

Once established, Maine will most likely use the food standards to determine when a contaminated farm can safely sell to the consumer market, either because that particular crop doesn’t absorb the harmful substance or on-site remediation efforts like water filtration systems have worked, McBrady said.


To date, the state has found higher PFAS contamination at 56 farms across Maine, most of which were located within a tenth of a mile of a site where Maine had approved high-volume, high-frequency applications of sludge or septage, McBrady said.

The state is providing financial assistance to those farmers – $2 million so far, McBrady said – as it tries to determine how to clean up the chemicals, if possible, or help farmers change their operations to avoid tainted fields, water sources or food sources.

Maine has also established a $60 million PFAS fund to help farmers navigate the PFAS crisis and guide Maine research in the field. The advisory panel overseeing the fund is just beginning its work, however, and won’t be able to release any funds until mid-summer, said fund director Beth Valentine.

The good news is that preliminary research is finding that various kinds of livestock, produce and fruits absorb and store PFAS in different ways, according to toxicologist Andrew Smith with the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Over time, for example, if a farmer replaces tainted feed or water with clean versions, the milk or beef from cattle that once exceeded acceptable health standards can eventually be safely consumed, Smith said. Pigs, however, seem to retain PFAS for much longer, even after the source of contamination is removed.

Likewise, research suggests that crops such as asparagus, corn, potatoes, rhubarb, squash and tomatoes could still be grown on farms with PFAS contamination, Smith said. For some crops, like corn, this is because the stalk absorbs the PFAS, but the kernels we eat do not.


That is good news for Maine, which is the country’s eighth-largest potato producer. Maine harvested 1.81 billion pounds of potatoes last year, a slight decrease from the 2021 total of 1.84 billion pounds but still a strong harvest, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

But other crops, like lettuce, arugula, carrots and spinach, seem to absorb and store PFAS. None of these rank among the state’s top five market crops, but many farms still grow them. Federal data shows more than 300 of Maine’s 7,600 farms grow lettuce, for example.

To set a PFAS limit for an individual food, researchers like Smith consider three different components: established toxicity levels for the most commonly found PFAS, the PFAS uptake of that vegetable, fruit or animal, and the amount of that food that a child, or sick or elderly American, is likely to eat.

The Maine CDC uses federal toxicity standards when available, but because states have frequently been ahead of federal authorities on the PFAS issue, that is not always possible, Smith said. But in 2021, the U.S. Agency of Toxic Substances Disease Registry began tackling PFAS toxicity levels, which has helped.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture maintains an extensive annual database of U.S. eating patterns that can help researchers like Smith know how much of a particular item the most vulnerable Americans, or the highest consumers of that product, consume on a given day, month or year, he said.

The end goal: an allowable daily intake of PFAS for every food that poses a minimal health risk, he said.


The agency has created draft safety limits for pork, eggs, lettuce, spinach and potatoes, Smith said.

The lingering question is how and when such limits should be enforced, Smith said. Should all food that tests above the limit be banned from the market? Or should a public notice be issued, as it would be for a public water supply, and the farmer ordered to reduce PFAS over time? A combination of the two?

“There are a lot of regulatory questions to be asked even after the science is done, and even the science is a moving target because over time the toxicity levels are changing, getting lower as more is learned about the health impacts of PFAS,” Smith said after the briefing. “There is still much we do not know.”

The CDC is building, equipping and staffing a $1.6 million PFAS test lab that should be available to run tests that need to be turned around quickly – such as human blood serum tests for those at risk and food product testing of milk or beef awaiting sale – in early 2024, Smith said.

Two private labs have responded to a state invitation to build up PFAS testing capacity in Maine, he said.

McBrady cautioned lawmakers against assuming that a farmer whose fields, herd or well had tested high for PFAS could simply change their operation from beef cattle that graze on fields testing high for PFAS to an asparagus farm. Not only is it stressful, but it may not be financially profitable.


Some farmers who are sitting on property contaminated by fertilizer spread through the Maine-licensed sludge and septage residuals program are going to want to relocate to a PFAS-free location or be bought out by the state under some buyback program whose rules are yet to be determined, she said.

The size of Maine’s farm harvest grew in acreage last year – 244,000 acres in 2022 compared to 227,000 in 2021 – and bucked a national trend of shrinking agricultural production, according to data published last month by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Last year, Maine became the first U.S. state to ban the sale of products containing PFAS except those deemed “unavoidable,” such as medical products. The ban does not go into effect until 2030, but starting this year, manufacturers must report any PFAS in locally sold products to the state.

So-called forever chemicals, which got the name because they don’t naturally break down, are found in the blood of 97 percent of Americans. Research shows some PFAS compounds decrease fertility, cause metabolic disorders, damage the immune system and increase the risk of cancer.

The water and heat-resistant family of chemicals has been used for 70 years. It also flows into us and then out of us through waste. Sludge from wastewater treatment and industrial plants prompted Maine’s 1,000-site PFAS investigation into farms.

Maine has taken a leading role in regulating PFAS, often outpacing federal authorities. Its PFAS drinking water standard is stricter than the national standard, at least for now. Federal authorities have not set PFAS limits for milk or beef, but Maine set limits in 2017 and 2020, respectively.

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