America’s Dairyland May Have a PFAS Problem
By Susan Cosier
First there was Fred Stone, the third-generation dairy farmer in Maine who discovered that the milk from his cows contained harmful chemicals. Then came Art Schaap, a second-generation dairy farmer in New Mexico, who had to dump 15,000 gallons of contaminated milk a day.
While the pollutants in these cases were different, they both belong to the same class of chemicals: per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS for short. Numbering in the thousands, the chemicals are used to make a variety of products such as nonstick pans, stain-resistant rugs, water-repellent clothing and food packaging. Industries have been manufacturing most PFAS since the 1940s, but the effects these chemicals have on human health started surfacing only in the past decade or so. Exposure has been linked to serious conditions, including testicular and kidney cancer, colitis, thyroid disorders and suppressed immune systems in children.
Many states are just beginning to look for PFAS contamination in drinking water and elsewhere, and places like Michigan, where state officials are actively testing for (and finding) these chemicals, are starting to look like contamination hot spots. In reality, the PFAS problem is much more widespread.
While Teflon plants and military bases that use firefighting foams are common PFAS sources, another culprit is emerging: sludge produced by sewage treatment plants. Farmers all over the country use such sludge to fertilize their land, potentially contaminating the crops and livestock they produce. And it could be happening in the Midwest, too.
Wary in Wisconsin
Doug Oitzinger, the former mayor of Marinette, Wisconsin, was at a meeting to discuss a new community garden last year when he found out about his town's groundwater. Just 30 feet below where they stood, levels of PFAS were as high as 33,000 parts per trillion (ppt), more than 470 times the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's health advisory level for drinking water of 70 ppt — a concentration many experts and states still consider a threat to human health. A few months later, Oitzinger knocked on a neighbor's door to see if anyone had told her about the pollution pooling below her home. She said she hadn't heard a thing.
In the beginning, he thought the contamination was limited to a specific area at the edge of town, close to the Tyco Fire Technology Center run by Johnson Controls International. But the more Oitzinger researched, the more concerned, and angry, he became. He's now pushing for Wisconsin politicians to make the PFAS issue a top priority. "I went from somebody who thought this was an unfortunate thing Tyco didn't know about, to ... well, let's just say their hands are covered in some pretty nasty stuff," he said.
Tyco knew back in 2013 of its PFAS problem, according to records it submitted to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR), but it wasn't until 2016 that the company documented the chemicals on its property and in the groundwater nearby. The public found out about it only in 2017, four years after Tyco's original admission, when the company acknowledged to the DNR that its pollution could be spreading.
When Tyco disclosed that PFAS pollution had contaminated groundwater in Marinette and nearby Peshtigo, the DNR directed the company to find affected wells. Since December 2017, Tyco has been voluntarily distributing bottled water to more than 120 households and installed 37 water treatment systems in the community. But it's not enough, and drinking water isn't the only thing in jeopardy. Just like other PFAS manufacturers, Tyco sent its waste to a local sewage treatment plant, where farmers obtain sludge for fertilizing their fields.
"We foolishly thought that we had institutions that would protect us from this sort of thing, that this couldn't happen anymore," said Oitzinger. "What we've discovered is that those institutions didn't protect us."
The DNR has since asked the wastewater treatment facility to stop selling sludge to farmers and launched a larger investigation into the matter earlier this year. For many farm owners, however, this action may have come too late — and there are no quick fixes. PFAS do not easily break down and can persist in the environment for decades, if not centuries.
A Message From Maine
The Stone family had been raising dairy cows in southern Maine for close to a century when, in 2016, Fred Stone voluntarily checked the farm's milk for PFAS. What he found, he said, destroyed his life: levels as high as 1,470 ppt.
"The toxic chemicals that I never used and had never even known about until two years ago contaminated my cows — which I really take exception to — and ruined my farming operation and hurt my family," he told reporters at a March press conference.
Stone had spread PFAS-contaminated sludge and paper mill ash on his fields for 20 years, but he stopped that practice in 2004. After 15 years, the substances were still there in amounts that could severely taint the milk of Stoneridge Farm, which is now out of business.
Stone went to Washington, DC, to ask Congress do something about PFAS contamination. Back in Maine, legislators set a PFOS action level of 210 ppt in milk, and the governor set up a PFAS task force. Maine's Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) temporarily stopped allowing farmers to spread sludge on their fields until it was tested. In 44 sludge samples taken by the agency, all but two had levels that exceeded the state's new limits for three PFAS chemicals: PFOA (2.5 parts per billion), PFOS (5.2 ppb), and PFBS (1,900 ppb). The DEP also tested retail and raw milk from three other farms, where PFAS levels did not exceed the state's reporting limit of 50 ppt.
So far, Stone's is the only Maine farm to shutter due to PFAS contamination, but others could follow and clean fields are still at risk. The Maine-based nonprofit Environmental Health Strategy Center has been pushing for the state to investigate other farms that received sludge from the same place as Stone, said Patrick MacRoy, deputy director of the group, but the group hasn't yet gotten a list of such farms, and testing isn't mandatory.
Even though no federal PFAS standards exist, lawmakers in a few states such as Vermont, Michigan and New Hampshire have proposed or passed bills that limit various types of PFAS — at differing concentrations — in drinking water. For Wisconsin's water supplies, the state's Department of Health Services recently recommended limits for PFOA and PFOS, two of the most widely used types, at 20 ppt. These are moves in the right direction, but PFAS find their way into more than just water. Researchers have been detecting these substances in everything from fish to leafy greens and grains to iced chocolate cake.
According to a 2012 study conducted by the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, a branch of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, "a number of researchers have concluded that food is often the primary human exposure route" for PFAS. (A 2016 EPA report agreed that diet is a primary source.)
Milk containing PFAS tends to be particularly potent because the substances bioaccumulate in cows. Farmers spread sludge on fields, plants take the contaminants up from the soil, then cows eat the grass in great amounts, concentrating the PFAS, which end up in their milk. That's bad for children, who tend to drink lots of milk and are also more vulnerable to these substances than adults are.
"Yes, exposure from milk is likely less than drinking water for adults, but for infants and children it's different," said Anna Reade, an NRDC staff scientist specializing in toxic chemicals. "It could be a significant source of exposure, and they're the most vulnerable in our population. We have a responsibility to protect them." Yet so far, no state except Maine has begun to develop a PFAS standard for milk — or any other food, for that matter.
The 2012 study showed that PFAS levels in 49 milk samples taken from around the country didn't contain levels higher than the EPA health advisory level of 70 ppt except for one — taken from a dairy farm where sludge was spread. Locations where we know farmers spread contaminated sludge are good places to be testing, said Erik Olson, NRDC's director of health and food.
In Wisconsin, the DNR has a map of where the state's farmers have spread biosolids from the wastewater treatment facility used by Tyco, and staff have tested the farms' soils and their surface water and groundwater. The results are expected this fall, but the agency hasn't yet indicated whether it will also test the foods grown on these farms.
Needless to say, tensions are high in these parts. "This is like coming to someone and saying your house is radioactive," said Oitzinger.
NRDC's Reade suggests that state agencies test sludge before it's spread on fields and milk before it goes to market. Then officials could see where the highest PFAS concentrations are coming from. But she knows that's not a popular idea. "PFAS is a huge, global public health threat," she said. "It's going to be hard to test for all this."
In July, the Wisconsin DNR urged 125 sewage treatment plants to test their waste products, but the agency has yet to set a PFAS standard for sludge or milk. Oitzinger hopes to change that. He's now working with a small group of activists and Wisconsin lawmakers to put PFAS standards on the books in his state, but he fears for the rest of the country, too.
The problems with these chemicals are complex, he said, and as Stone knows, they don't go away on their own. "It's like peeling an onion," he said. "Every time you take a layer off, there's another layer, and the more layers you take off, the more your eyes water. It just gets worse and worse."
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By Lindsey Schneider, Joshua Sbicca and Stephanie Malin
The SARS-CoV-2 virus is novel, but pandemic threats to indigenous peoples are anything but new. Diseases like measles, smallpox and the Spanish flu have decimated Native American communities ever since the arrival of the first European colonizers.
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History Reverberates on Native Lands<p>Native communities in North America have been disrupted and displaced for centuries. Many face long-standing food and water <a href="http://www.nativepartnership.org/site/DocServer/2017-PWNA-NPRA-Food-Insecurity-Project-Grow.pdf?docID=7106" target="_blank">inequities</a> that are further complicated by this pandemic.</p><p>On the Navajo reservation, which covers more than 27,000 square miles in Arizona, Utah and New Mexico, 76% of households already <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/publication/235390130_High_levels_of_household_food_insecurity_on_the_Navajo_Nation" target="_blank">have trouble affording enough healthy food</a>, and the nearest grocery store is often hours away. COVID-related restrictions have further curtailed access to food supplies.</p><p>Clean water for basic sanitary measures like hand-washing is also scarce. Native Americans are <a href="http://uswateralliance.org/sites/uswateralliance.org/files/Closing%20the%20Water%20Access%20Gap%20in%20the%20United%20States_DIGITAL.pdf" target="_blank">19 times more likely</a> to lack indoor plumbing than whites in the U.S. Nearly one-third of Navajo households <a href="https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/coronavirus-hits-indian-country-hard-exposing-infrastructure-disparities-n1186976" target="_blank">lack access to running water</a>.</p><p>Many <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6915e3.htm" target="_blank">health issues</a> that can increase COVID-19 mortality rates occur at high levels among Native Americans. These <a href="http://www.ncai.org/news/articles/2020/03/18/the-national-congress-of-american-indians-calls-for-more-attention-to-covid-19-impacts-to-indian-country" target="_blank">underlying</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(20)30893-X" target="_blank">preexisting</a> conditions – things like hypertension, diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease – are <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6913e2.htm" target="_blank">linked to diet</a> and stem from <a href="https://www.oupress.com/books/15107980/indigenous-food-sovereignty-in-the-united-sta" target="_blank">disruption and replacement</a> of Indigenous food systems.</p>
High Exposure Rates<p>These factors have clear health impacts. On the Navajo reservation, for instance, through May 27, 2020, <a href="https://www.navajo-nsn.gov/News%20Releases/OPVP/2020/May/FOR%20IMMEDIATE%20RELEASE%20-%201620%20recoveries_102%20new%20cases%20of%20COVID-19_and%20one%20more%20death%20reported.pdf" target="_blank">4,944 people</a> out of a population of 173,000 had tested positive for COVID-19, and 159 had died.</p><p>This infection rate per capita exceeds those in hot spots such as <a href="https://www.forbes.com/sites/alexandrasternlicht/2020/05/19/navajo-nation-has-most-coronavirus-infections-per-capita-in-us-beating-new-york-new-jersey/#11a4fac08b10" target="_blank">New York and New Jersey</a>. Importantly, however, it may also reflect a much <a href="https://www.sltrib.com/news/2020/04/19/navajo-nation-has-higher/" target="_blank">more proactive approach to testing</a> on reservations than in many other jurisdictions.</p><p>The fact that elderly people are especially vulnerable to COVID-19 could worsen the pandemic's effects in Indian Country. Elders are the <a href="https://ais.washington.edu/research/publications/spirits-our-whaling-ancestors" target="_blank">keepers of traditional knowledge, tribal languages and culture</a> – legacies whose loss already threatens the persistence of indigenous communities.</p><p>Elders also play key roles in preserving traditional plant and medicine knowledge. In the absence of COVID-19 interventions from Western medicine, many elders have been called on to perform healing practices, which increases their exposure risk.</p>
Little Help From Federal and State Governments<p>Many tribal members rely on the federal government's <a href="https://www.ihs.gov/" target="_blank">Indian Health Service</a> for health care. But <a href="https://theconversation.com/tribal-leaders-face-great-need-and-dont-have-enough-resources-to-respond-to-the-coronavirus-pandemic-134372" target="_blank">lack of capacity</a> at the agency has hampered its response. Budget shortfalls, <a href="https://indiancountrytoday.com/news/report-grossly-inaccurate-data-used-to-divvy-up-relief-funds-for-tribes-9qkkHmeXj0uhRC42mXYqCA" target="_blank">inaccurate data</a>, the challenges of providing <a href="https://indiancountrytoday.com/news/coronavirus-risk-is-compounded-by-the-rural-DC-rMTUzzE6WDGee8jbENQ" target="_blank">rural health care</a> and ongoing personnel shortages in IHS clinics are compounded by staff being <a href="https://navajotimes.com/reznews/dikos-ntsaaigii-doodaa-nation-musters-defense-against-covid-19/" target="_blank">pulled away</a> to fight the virus in large cities.</p><p>And while many states have raised frustrations with the Trump administration's unwillingness to distribute protective supplies from the <a href="https://www.vox.com/recode/2020/4/3/21206170/us-emergency-stockpile-jared-kushner-almost-empty-coronavirus-medical-supplies-ventilators" target="_blank">dwindling national stockpile</a>, IHS and tribal health care authorities <a href="https://www.azpm.org/p/home-articles-news/2020/3/17/167874-bill-calls-for-more-tribal-community-access-to-federal-stockpile-of-medical-supplies/" target="_blank">never had access</a> to the stockpile at all.</p><p>Although the federal government has begun <a href="https://www.hhs.gov/about/news/2020/05/22/hhs-announces-500-million-distribution-to-tribal-hospitals-clinics-and-urban-health-centers.html" target="_blank">distributing relief funds</a> to IHS agencies, there have been serious problems with the accompanying supplies. The Navajo Nation has received <a href="https://www.indianz.com/News/2020/05/22/propublica-former-trump-aide-provided-fa.asp" target="_blank">faulty masks</a>, and a Seattle Native health center asked for tests but <a href="https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/native-american-health-center-asked-covid-19-supplies-they-got-n1200246" target="_blank">received body bags instead</a>.</p><p>Meanwhile, federally imposed limits on tribal sovereignty have obstructed tribal governments' efforts to deal with the pandemic themselves. Federal and state governments are <a href="https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/makah-tribe-fights-coronavirus-with-self-reliance-and-extreme-isolation/" target="_blank">challenging tribes' jurisdictional authority</a> to <a href="https://www.azfamily.com/news/mayor-of-page-accused-of-racist-social-media-comment-toward-navajo-nation-president/article_e2e6efd6-8db4-11ea-a8a2-7f6976d702f6.html" target="_blank">close borders to tourists</a> who may carry the virus. South Dakota's governor has <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/may/14/sioux-coronavirus-roadblocks-south-dakota-governor" target="_blank">threatened legal action</a> against two tribes who set up checkpoints to monitor incoming traffic on their reservations.</p>
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Environmental Injustices on Native Land<p>Energy development and resource extraction have had <a href="https://www.haymarketbooks.org/books/898-all-our-relations" target="_blank">disproportionate impacts</a> on tribes for many years. Today, many Native American leaders worry that ongoing energy production – <a href="https://www.ncsl.org/research/labor-and-employment/covid-19-essential-workers-in-the-states.aspx" target="_blank">an "essential" activity under federal guidelines</a> will bring outsiders into close contact with reservation communities, worsening COVID risks.</p><p>The owners of the Keystone XL oil pipeline have announced that they intend to continue construction, which will bring an influx of workers along the proposed route through Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska. The Rosebud Sioux Tribe in South Dakota and Fort Belknap Indian community in Montana have filed for a <a href="https://www.narf.org/keystone-xl/" target="_blank">temporary restraining order</a>, and a key permit for the pipeline was <a href="https://www.democracynow.org/2020/4/16/headlines/us_judge_revokes_crucial_permit_for_keystone_xl_pipeline" target="_blank">revoked in April 2020</a>, but work continues at the U.S.-Canada border.</p><p>Construction is accelerating on the <a href="https://www.azcentral.com/story/news/politics/border-issues/2020/03/17/border-patrol-waives-laws-border-wall-construction-southern-arizona/5063618002/" target="_blank">southern border wall</a>, which bisects the <a href="http://www.tonation-nsn.gov/" target="_blank">Tohono O'odham reservation</a> in Arizona and Mexico. The Trump administration has <a href="https://www.thenation.com/article/politics/border-coronavirus-military-immigration/" target="_blank">increased patrols at the border</a>, despite the tribe's concern that the patrols' presence is <a href="https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2020/04/06/coronavirus-cbp-160-cases-covid-19-officers-agents/2958736001/" target="_blank">spreading coronavirus</a> on the reservation.</p><p>And in Bristol Bay, Alaska, a salmon fishing season that brings in thousands of temporary workers is <a href="https://indiancountrytoday.com/news/it-s-hard-when-you-love-something-xlS49l2N20KZjqumwfzZfQ" target="_blank">set to open in June</a> because the federal government has also deemed commercial fishing "<a href="https://www.cisa.gov/sites/default/files/publications/CISA-Guidance-on-Essential-Critical-Infrastructure-Workers-1-20-508c.pdf" target="_blank">essential critical infrastructure</a>." Many local Native villages depend on the fishery for income, but have nonetheless pleaded with state regulators to <a href="https://indiancountrytoday.com/news/urgent-calls-to-close-the-massive-bristol-bay-fishery-8lYsGkUeDUyCBW7FMwpSfA?fbclid=IwAR1710u4rQnriq_MgH2ueQxOFtfGiGiH8I2ZdJRCZS9f28Zl-JNkPLpnzZo" target="_blank">cancel the season</a>. The regional hospital has just four beds for possible COVID-19 patients.</p>
Bold Action in Native Communities<p>Native communities are taking decisive action to reduce the spread of COVID-19. They're imposing aggressive <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/09/us/coronavirus-navajo-nation.html" target="_blank">quarantine</a> measures like lockdowns, curfews and border closures. Communities are <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/mar/18/covidcoronavirus-native-american-lummi-nation-trailblazing-steps" target="_blank">ramping up health care capacity</a> and elder support services, and banishing nontribal members who <a href="https://rapidcityjournal.com/news/local/oglala-sioux-council-banishes-non-member-with-covid-19-from-reservation/article_60b665c3-9d1b-5d48-a576-51774e4fb41a.html" target="_blank">violate travel restrictions</a>.</p><p>Other strategies include helping hunters <a href="https://indiancountrytoday.com/news/ammo-fuel-for-hunters-to-feed-others-Ki3zK6du-ky-UogoB9-aNQ" target="_blank">provide traditional foods</a> to their communities, <a href="https://ndncollective.org/indigenizing-and-decolonizing-community-care-in-response-to-covid-19/" target="_blank">mobilizing to support tribal health care workers</a>, and <a href="https://www.ehn.org/coronavirus-native-americans-2645923635.html" target="_blank">linking the pandemic and the climate crisis</a>. Looking ahead to a post-COVID future, we believe one priority should be attending to <a href="http://www.beacon.org/As-Long-as-Grass-Grows-P1445.aspx" target="_blank">front-line environmental justice struggles</a> that center tribes' sovereignty to act on their own behalf at all times, not just during national crises.</p>
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