Like many health-minded Americans, I’ve long sought out organic food as much as possible, especially vegetables, fruits, and dairy. Even the corporate organic produce, I figured, had lower odds of contamination from pesticides and other chemicals than conventional stuff.
But then I read a story about a farm in Maine owned by an idealistic couple dedicated to producing high-quality organic produce. The couple, Adam Nordell and Johanna Davis, had bought their land in 2014 from an older part-time farmer who was selling the land because he was dying of cancer and wanted to move on. The two newbies were so successful commercially selling their veggies that they were planning to invest in a bakery to incorporate the grains they had begun growing.
Then late last year, a customer alerted them to elevated levels of PFAS, so-called “forever chemicals,” found in deer that had been killed nearby. The couple began researching and testing, and found very high levels in their soil, crops…..and in their bodies. They had more than 250 times the recommended limits; they were very worried about not just themselves, but their young daughter. They have since shut the farm down.
But not only is that not the end of a very sad story, it’s likely just the beginning of a huge national problem, suggests the Washington Post article: “It would be comforting to dismiss the story of Songbird Farm as a one-off calamity — a confined case of PFAS contamination. The reality is far more disturbing. According to the nonprofit Environmental Working Group, more than 2,800 sites nationwide are contaminated by PFAS — and that’s only what’s documented. The real total is unknown, and possibly much higher. In Maine alone, the state Department of Environmental Protection is investigating 700 sites once fertilized with the same sort of sludge that likely contaminated Songbird Farm. Many cases are lurking beneath the surface, undetected and often unregulated by an official watchdog.”
Another example of the devastating effects of these chemicals was highlighted in this account of the death of an avid organic gardener in neighboring Vermont who happened to live near a plant that used PFAS chemicals.
I asked long-time friend and organic farming expert Elliot Coleman, who has been innovating organic farming practices for more than fifty years from his farm on Maine’s coast, what he made of the situation, and he concurred with the Washington Post article. “As a card carrying ‘Suspicious Old Hippie,’ I have always been very careful about what I bring on to the farm. Sludge is an obvious no-no even though the USDA tried to sneak it in to the early organic standards because they were pressured by the sludge industry worried about trying to get rid of it. The early sludge objectors were concerned about heavy metal contamination. Who ever heard about PFAS? I think the situation in Maine is just the tip of the PFAS-in-sludge iceberg because the first tests were done here. I think it will be a scandal all over.
“The only compost we have been buying comes from an organic dairy farm. Very expensive but they guarantee its purity. We ended that last year and are now getting our fertility from an extensive grown on site green manure program. I like the independence of not relying on inputs not to mention the financial savings. There was an article in the Bangor paper recently that the Indian reservation up above Bangor on the Penobscot river is advising its people not to eat fish from the river because an upstream landfill is leaking PFAS in to the river. What the hell? That same river runs past the beaches of Cape Rosier where I collect seaweed for my home made compost. I am having a PFAS test done on the seaweed this week, I hope. The local seaweed was tested for heavy metal contamination when there was a zinc/copper mine on the Cape years ago but only zinc and copper levels were above normal and since those are beneficial trace elements I have continued using seaweed up till now. Damn but it is hard to stay pure.”
In other words, all land and food is potentially at risk, including that owned in distant rural areas by individuals thinking they can escape health problems by growing their own food. Life just isn’t so straightforward any more.
What to do? I suppose I’ll continue to buy organic. But increasingly, it will feel like playing Russian roulette. It’s one thing to inquire with farmers if they let their chickens or dairy cows out on pasture, but quite another to try to get them to document whether there’s PFAS contamination of their soil. It’s been convenient to blame the standard American diet or GMO food for the high rates of cancer in our society, but perhaps we’ve been beating the wrong horses.
A number of countries in the European Union, including Germany and Norway, have begun the process of banning PFAS chemicals. In the U.S., it’s difficult to imagine a united approach on pretty much anything suggesting regulation.. Therefore, any meaningful actions will likely be up to individual states. Anyone have advice for detoxing? Do hydroponically-grown foods have more of a future than imagined?