Johanna Davis and Adam Nordell, who own Songbird Farm in Unity, are trying to figure out next steps after finding out that their land has been contaminated with "forever chemicals." Credit: Abigail Curtis / BDN

The federal government’s drastic reduction of the levels of “forever chemicals” that are safe for consumption is getting a mixed reaction from farmers in Maine.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a nonbinding health advisory setting the health risks associated with two specific per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — also called PFAS chemicals. For perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), it lowered its health advisory level for lifetime exposure to 0.004 parts per trillion, and to 0.02 parts per trillion for another specific chemical, perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS). 

The previous EPA levels, set in 2016, were 70 parts per trillion for each. Here in Maine, the current threshold for PFOS in drinking water is 20 parts per trillion, while milk is 210 parts per trillion and beef is 3.4 parts per billion.

By the EPA’s own admission, their own new levels are too minute to measure with current technology.

The federal advisory around safe levels of “forever chemicals” in the environment is good news, Maine farmers say, but it’s a long way from solving the ongoing crisis the toxins are posing to their livelihoods.

“What the EPA did seems to be an indication that they are taking these chemicals seriously,” said Adam Nordell, who owns Songbird Farms with Johanna Davis. “It is heartening that they are concerned even with low-level exposure.”

Since voluntarily halting all farming operations after discovering the chemicals on their land and in their water earlier this year, the couple has turned to advocacy work around the presence of forever chemicals in Maine.

An unknown number of acres in Maine were contaminated by forever chemicals when municipal sludge was spread on the land as an agricultural fertilizer.

At the same time, Nordell said, the state has a long way to go to solve the forever chemical issue.

“It’s a step in the right direction,” Nordell said. “This is not the end of the story [and] what we need is regulations and enforcement, not guidance.”

The EPA’s advisory are recommendations only.

“Hopefully the state of Maine will follow in adopting its own regulations,” Nordell said. “And the EPA will hopefully provide resources to help.”

Anson Biller of Full Fork Farm in China worries the EPA’s advisory could just be deflecting a larger problem, as it only specifies two of the most well-known forever chemicals.

“The PFOS and PFAS have the most research around them and industries are moving away from them,” Biller said. “[Is the EPA] just dodging the underlying issue that other [forever chemicals] are in consumer goods and everyday objects that are not healthy for ourselves or the environment?”

Biller said the drinking water on his own farm tested negative for the toxins, but a nearby pond he had intended to use for irrigation did have elevated PFAS and PFOS levels.

The EPA guidelines have been a longtime coming, according to Patrick MacRoy, deputy director of Defend Our Health, a nonprofit advocacy group working on issues of clean and safe food and drinking water in Maine.

“The science has really been pushing it in this direction,” MacRoy said. “This is about how much PFAS chemicals a person can be exposed to in a given day without health impacts.”

Given the new EPA numbers, MacRoy said he expects to see acceptable numbers in Maine to drop for drinking water, soil and food.

That, MacRoy said, is going to take time, and he understands the frustrations and fears felt by farmers whose livelihoods are in jeopardy from these chemicals and policies put in place decades ago.

MacRoy said available funding through the state and from organizations such as the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association and Maine Farmland Trust should be able to help growers weather at least part of this process.

“There had been a very reasonable and valid concern from farmers who had contamination that had no viable way to support themselves and continue farming,” MacRoy said. “Now that we have some funds there is at least some wiggle room for them while we figure out the viable paths moving forward.”

As heartened as Nordell is by the EPA’s actions, he said it’s hard not to be angry at the same time.

“This is an issue that has been affecting people in Maine for 30 or more years,” he said. “I just think of that elapsed time and all of those potential health impacts that have accumulated for so long — it’s heartbreaking and really angering.”

For Biller, it’s hard to think about it as he drives around the state and looks at areas he knows have tested for unsafe levels of forever chemicals.

“It’s really tragic when you drive past some of these spots you know had [sludge] spreading and they look healthy and grow food that looks amazing,” he said.

“There can be all the good practices on that land that people want for healthy produce and you would not know the food grown there is not good for you.”

Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified the specific PFAS chemicals with new health advisory limits. It has been corrected.

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Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.