U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said Friday that the federal government needs more funding to study so-called forever chemicals and devise a national strategy to respond to the problem. Maine’s congressional delegation agrees and is pushing for more money to alleviate the PFAS crisis on several fronts.

In an interview with the Press Herald, Vilsack said one goal of PFAS research should be to determine a safe standard for PFAS chemicals in soil and in food produced on farms. Some farms in Maine have shut down after high levels of PFAS contamination were discovered, although it’s not known what levels of contamination are hazardous.

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U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on April 3, in Albuquerque, N.M. Jon Austria/The Albuquerque Journal via AP

No federal standard for soil or crop contamination currently exists. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has proposed a standard for safe drinking water of less than four parts per trillion of the two most common PFAS chemicals.

“Before we can craft a response for farmers, we need a better understanding of the extent and nature of the problem,” Vilsack said. He said the same reasoning applies to using wastewater sludge to spread on farm fields. Maine no longer allows the practice after soil on farm fields was found to be heavily contaminated with PFAS. Some farms used the contaminated sludge as fertilizer for decades under a state-sanctioned recycling program. Maine is so far the only state to ban land spreading of sludge.

Vilsack said he doesn’t fault states like Maine that have taken a preemptive approach to the problem, but a federal response would need to first figure out what safe levels would be in soil and produce.

Vilsack is seeking an additional $20 million for PFAS research and development, but so far only $5 million has been approved for U.S. Department of Agriculture research on PFAS. With Republicans in control of the House and currently fighting with the Biden administration over raising the debt ceiling and budget cutbacks, a $20 million expansion in PFAS research funding doesn’t look likely in this year’s budget bill. The EPA also has received $8 million for PFAS research.


But there could be another path to more money for PFAS research.

Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine, D-1st District, agrees with Vilsack that more research is needed, and is looking to jump-start research with a comprehensive $500 million bill – for research and several other PFAS initiatives – that could either be standalone or included in the Farm Bill. The Farm Bill is reauthorized every five years, and needs to be completed by September to be done in time, Pingree said. She said it’s typically considered a “must pass” bill and may be the only significant legislation approved by Congress this year.

“The money we’ve secured so far for PFAS research is only a tiny down payment. If I could have my way, we’d be operating on all fronts,” Pingree said. “I’d have us working on significant investments in PFAS.”

PFAS, per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances are a family of durable chemicals used in several products, including sunscreen, stain-resistant fabrics, nonstick cookware, firefighting foam, cosmetics, and other products. The chemicals do not break down and accumulate in the environment, contaminating soil and water.

Researchers are still learning about the health effects of exposure to the chemicals. Contamination could cause long-term health problems, including an increased risk of kidney or testicular cancer, damage to the liver, high cholesterol, pregnancy complications, lower birth weight in infants, and other potential health problems, research shows.

Maine has some of the strictest PFAS regulations in the nation, including a drinking water standard of 20 parts per trillion among six PFAS chemicals, a ban on the use of sludge to fertilize farm fields, and other measures. More than 500 private wells in Maine have been found to exceed the state-safe drinking water standard for PFAS.



Pingree said one question that research could answer is what crops are most affected by PFAS contamination.

“We don’t have a standard yet for how much is safe in a carrot, or how much is safe in oats and barley,” Pingree said. She said if some crops are more resistant to PFAS contamination, farmers could shift what is grown on their land, rather than take the entire PFAS-affected land out of production.

Pingree said another area of research is determining, once contamination is discovered in soil, how to remove it. With Maine being on the cutting edge of PFAS regulation – a flurry of additional PFAS bills are pending in the Legislature – has meant that national awareness continues to lag.

“We’re one of only a few states that are doing the testing. We’ve come a long way, from total lack of recognition and no funding, but it’s still a small amount now,” Pingree said.

The entire Maine congressional delegation, Pingree, Sens. Susan Collins, a Republican, and Angus King, an independent, and Rep. Jared Golden, D-2nd District, sponsored the Relief for Farmers Hit with PFAS Act in 2022. In March, Collins discussed with Vilsack during a Senate appropriations committee hearing the need for more research, noting that farmers in Maine were suffering “significant financial harm.”


As for what else to do for farmers now, Vilsack said that they are exploring using the Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers for removing “environmentally sensitive” land from production. Currently, the only federal program helping farmers is for dairy farmers, but Maine has a program to help farmers with lost income who have had to shut down or curtail production.

“Sen. King agrees that more resources are needed to better address the threat posed by PFAS contamination and is working to get (the) Relief for Farmers Hit With PFAS Act included in the upcoming Farm Bill to expand resources for research, testing, and remediation. The senator is also in talks to include language in the Farm Bill that will clarify that many existing USDA research programs can include PFAS studies,” King spokesman Matthew Felling said.

Pingree is hopeful that more federal help for Maine people affected by PFAS is on the way.

“We are looking for opportunities for more funding, and I feel like PFAS has not been burdened by partisan disagreements,” Pingree said.


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