Read the full story by Kate Olson (Down East Magazine)
“One summer morning in 1992, Henry Perkins had finished milking his herd of 80 Dutch Belted cows and was on to other chores when a pickup truck pulled up to his Albion farm. The man who stepped out said he was with BFI Organics, a waste-management company, and he told Perkins about a new, free source of nutrients for his land. The Portland Water District needed a way to dispose of what the industry calls sludge, a by-product of wastewater treatment containing the residue of household, municipal, and human waste. The sludge would come mixed with lime, the man said, to raise the PH of the soil. Perkins was curious, and when he asked around in the days that followed, he found that other farmers he knew — good ones, in his estimation — were already using this new fertilizer.
Perkins asked the BFI reps if it was safe. ‘And they said, ‘It’s completely safe. We test it for all the chemicals and all that,’’ he recalls. ‘I was led to believe that it was benefitting society in general.’
Perkins used the free fertilizer for five years, then never thought any more of it. In 2013, he sold most of his farm and moved onto a remaining parcel up the road. The new owners, Katia and Brendan Holmes, named the operation Misty Brook Farm and diversified it to include sheep, pigs, and laying hens. Then, early last year, customers started asking whether they were testing their milk for PFAS.
‘We said, ‘Okay, we can do that,’’ Katia says. ‘‘And by the way, what is PFAS?’’
PFAS is an acronym for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, often called ‘forever chemicals,’ a class of at least 4,700 manufactured chemicals used in industrial processes and consumer goods since the 1940s, valued for their resistance to heat and water and their extreme durability. Among the most widely used and studied is perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, essential to nuclear-weapons production during World War II and famously used to make Teflon. Over time, manufacturers found more and more applications for PFAS, and today, they’re found in outerwear, furniture, rugs, food packaging, cosmetics, cleaning products, and more. They’re used in firefighting and oil and gas fracking. In short, PFAS are all around us.
They are also in us. Highly mobile, PFAS are increasingly found in the food we eat, water we drink, and air we breathe. National sampling efforts conducted by the CDC have found PFAS in more than 98 percent of American blood samples. What makes the compounds industrially and commercially useful — their stubborn resistance to degradation — also makes them persist in the environment and accumulate in our bodies. High levels of PFAS exposure are associated with increased risk of kidney and testicular cancer, thyroid disease, reproductive complications, elevated cholesterol, and vaccine resistance in children.
In Maine, beginning in the 1980s, the state Department of Environmental Protection and sewer districts across the state began promoting the spreading of sewage sludge, sometimes known as biosolids, on farmland. The practice, widespread in all 50 states, had its genesis in the Clean Water Act, which set wastewater standards and provided funding for sewage-treatment plants. Spreading sludge seemed, at the time, like a win-win — free fertilizer for farmers and savings on landfill fees for municipalities. Today, Maine’s DEP knows of 700 sites across the state where ‘residuals’ from both residential and industrial sources — including, in Maine, paper mills — were likely spread as fertilizer.
In 2016, an EPA test of unregulated contaminants found significant levels of PFAS in a public well not far from Stoneridge Farm, in Arundel. The next year, the state’s Department of Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry found high levels of PFAS in milk from Stoneridge Farm. Although chemical companies have been quietly accumulating evidence of PFAS’s hazardous health effects since the 1960s, federal and state agencies have been slow to regulate and set safety standards. But as news of Stoneridge broke and concern grew in Maine over PFAS dairy contamination, the Maine CDC created an ‘action threshold’ for one common type — called perfluorooctyl sulfonate, or PFOS — and DACF started conducting retail-milk tests. In 2020, one test revealed that milk from Fairfield’s Tozier Dairy Farm had PFOS concentrations of more than 150 times the state’s threshold for contamination — likely the highest PFAS concentration ever recorded in milk. Both the Arundel and Fairfield farms, it turned out, had participated in the sludge programs.
Last year, the DEP published a map of sites where historic licensing data shows biosolids may have been applied. Perkins’s land was on it, and when he tested his well water, the levels came back high. Down the road, at Misty Brook, the soil and water tested low for PFAS, but the milk tested high, as did some hay the Holmeses had bought from a nearby farm.
So the Holmeses called their buyers across the state and immediately pulled all of their products from the shelves. They were devastated. They told their 10 staff members that they didn’t know the extent of the contamination. ‘We went from full-on to zero income overnight,’ Katia says.”…