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Farmers' livelihoods are at risk as some discover 'forever chemicals' in the soil


The discovery of so-called forever chemicals is upending the lives and livelihood of a young farming couple in rural Maine. They are among a small but growing number of farmers nationwide affected by an agricultural practice that has left a toxic legacy in some places. Kevin Miller with Maine Public Radio reports.

KEVIN MILLER, BYLINE: The temperature was in the single digits one recent morning as Johanna Davis and Adam Nordell walked along a snowy path to a large greenhouse on Songbird Farm. Inside, it was less frigid but still cold. Yet underneath thin sheets of fabric, clumps of green were sprouting from the icy earth.

ADAM NORDELL: Spinach is amazing. Spinach can just hang out in the bone-cold frozen soil at 15 degrees below. And then once it warms up, it is able to move water around and perk right up.

MILLER: Adam and Johanna had planned to sell spinach and other leafy greens this winter, but all of their plans for this 20-acre vegetable and green farm are now on hold. Just before Christmas, the couple learned the water they drink and give to their toddler son contained 400 times more PFAS than the state of Maine says it's safe to drink. Soils and some crops on their organic farm are also contaminated.

JOHANNA DAVIS: Complete crisis, just devastated, heartbroken, really angry.

NORDELL: Terrified.

MILLER: PFAS has been widely used to manufacture everything from nonstick cookware and waterproof ski jackets to fast food wrappers and grease-resistant paper plates. But some of the chemicals have been linked to cancer, kidney malfunction, high cholesterol and decreased vaccine response in children. Critics have dubbed PFAS, which is short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, as forever chemicals because they don't break down easily, including during wastewater treatment. For decades, sewage treatment plants provided free sludge to farmers for fertilizer. More than 5 billion pounds of these biosolids were spread on land in 2019, according to federal data.

LINDA LEE: PFASes in the biosolids aren't affecting plant health.

MILLER: Linda Lee is a Purdue University professor studying the connection between sludge and PFAS contamination.

LEE: But we are concerned that if they leach to quantities that are of concern in our groundwater, we're not happy. Lee says while PFAS do show up in waste because they're so ubiquitous in consumer products, your average household sludge is likely not an issue. When the PFAS levels are extremely high in sludge, there's almost always an industrial source involved.

LEE: I do have concerns about any of the paper mill industries that are using PFAS as coatings. That could really put a high load in the waste products.

MILLER: PFAS have also cropped up on farms in other states, including New Mexico, Colorado and Alabama. Michigan officials recently found high levels on a cattle farm that provided beef to local schools. Two Maine dairy farms are shut down, but state officials and agricultural leaders are bracing for more.

MELANIE LOYZIM: It's like a nightmare you can't wake up from.

MILLER: Melanie Loyzim is commissioner of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, which identified 700 high-risk sites based on decades of sludge-spreading permits.

LOYZIM: People's homes and livelihoods have been destroyed, and the scale of the tragedy keeps growing with every sample we take.

MILLER: Johanna Davis and Adam Nordell say records show sludge was spread decades before they bought their farm in 2014. One source was a treatment plant that processes waste from a paper mill that reportedly used PFAS. Inside their farmhouse by a warm woodstove, the couple vacillates between fear, anger and frustration. They're most concerned about their 3-year-old son, given research on how PFAS affects developing bodies. And they're worried about other people.

DAVIS: You know, who is drinking water right now that's as high as ours? You know, who's about to have a baby? Who's - you know, about thinking about having a baby? You know, I mean, it's so too late. It's so too late to be telling everybody this, and it can't be soon enough.

MILLER: Maine lawmakers set aside $30 million in the current budget to cover the costs of testing those 700-plus sites and to assist homeowners. And state officials are exploring ways to compensate affected farmers, like Adam and Johanna. But the state is also reviewing proposals from legal firms willing to represent Maine in lawsuits against the chemical manufacturers. For NPR News, I'm Kevin Miller in Unity, Maine.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kevin Miller