If you’re following federal and local toxics news, you’ve probably heard about PFAS (perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances) which are found in many manufactured products, from nonstick pans to raincoat material and food containers. The PFAS class of chemicals are associated with higher risk of multiple cancers, reproductive damage, endocrine disruption, and decreased vaccine response.
Like PFOAs, the now-banned chemicals that PFAS have replaced, PFAS and other fluorinated chemicals are associated with extraordinarily long breakdown times — sometimes thousands of years — which has led to their informal classification as “forever chemicals.” The longevity of PFAS in the environment means that remediation is both urgently needed and prohibitively expensive.
When it comes to PFAS, there are also clear and concerning connections with pesticides and ag policy.
A different kind of drift
While PFAS are now found across waterways, continents, and in the blood of almost every American tested, they pose a specific series of threats for farmers and rural communities.
Johanna Davis and Adam Nordell run an organic vegetable and grain farm in Maine. Last year, they learned that their land and drinking water was heavily contaminated with PFAS. The reason? The previous landowners had fertilized with municipal sludge laced with these forever chemicals — decades before Johanna and Adam bought the property.
Now, the couple are buying safe drinking water for themselves and their toddler son, and have put their vegetable production on hold indefinitely. They are demanding that the state provide farmers like them with long-term financial support until remediation is possible.
Sound familiar? Reading Johanna and Adam’s story I was struck by how many similarities there are between PFAS contamination and pesticide drift. For people like them who experience drift, the financial and psychological effects can last a lifetime. Getting drifted on is a profoundly isolating experience, misunderstood by many, and often leaves victims with years of uncertainty, anger and fear — all while receiving little to no support from those in power.
The difference is that most pesticides break down in “mere” years. Or do they?
It’s now coming to light that many pesticides are being produced in a way that makes them much closer, chemically, to PFAS products. Fluorinated pesticides accounted for only 9% of pesticides on the market in the year 2000. In the following two decades, fluorination of pesticides has increased significantly — between 2015-2020, over 70% of new pesticide products approved were fluorinated. In general, fluorinated pesticides and their byproducts break down much more slowly in the environment than previous formulations.
A double dose
In 2021, communities in Maryland and Massachusetts became concerned about whether there might be PFAS contamination in pesticides used locally. Especially for mosquito control pesticide products applied broadly (such as aerial and truck sprays) the implications of "forever chemical" PFAS contamination would be severe. EPA claimed that there were no PFAS chemicals used in this way, but independent testing revealed that there was PFAS contamination in pesticides being used by mosquito control districts — of 14 mosquito control products tested, half were found to contain PFAS. These products are heavily applied across communities, often weekly, from Spring through Fall.
In response to these concerns, EPA claimed that the PFAS contamination was due to leaching from fluorinated plastic HDPE storage containers. While this explanation has been touted by many as proof that PFAS contamination of pesticides is not a serious concern, the testing in Maryland and Massachusetts revealed that three products were contaminated from another source than the containers. Beyond this kind of contamination, PFAS are active ingredients in at least 40 pesticide products used worldwide.
And this only accounts for pesticides that include PFAS as an active ingredient. PFAS products are a popular surfactant (helps spray more easily) so PFAS may also be used as inert ingredients in pesticides, which unfortunately don’t have to be reported since chemical composition falls under “trade secret” jurisdiction.
It is clear that PFAS are present in a variety of commonly-used pesticide products, regardless of storage conditions. No research has been done on the synergistic effects of PFAS and pesticides — which we know pose their own set of human and environmental health risks.
EPA’s lack of leadership
Under immense pressure to regulate PFAS and protect the public from these chemicals, EPA has engaged in a regulatory stalling tactic — changing the definition of what is considered to be a PFAS to shirk responsibility.
Early this year, EPA announced intentions to reconsider their definition of PFAS chemicals, adding to existing confusion and substantially limiting their responsibility for cleanup. Their new “working definition” of PFAS is much narrower than the previous, more comprehensive definition — and thereby excludes many chemicals in pharmaceuticals and pesticides from consideration.
This redefinition makes PFAS seem less concerning, and potentially gives preference to chemical manufacturers and the U.S. Department of Defense over public and environmental health. All par for the course for the U.S. Government, but still a huge blow to farmers, clinicians, and communities in need of protection and remediation.
Luckily, this is an issue that spans many sectors — and thus is a great opportunity for us to demonstrate strength in numbers. Many states have passed legislation that encodes the stronger definition of PFAS. Advocates in Maine and Maryland have put forward bills to prevent PFAS contamination in pesticides. This month, Congress introduced its own definition bill, the PFAS Definition Improvement Act, which would require EPA to use the most comprehensive definition of PFAS chemicals. You can support this issue by asking your representative to co-sponsor the bill, which currently has bipartisan support.
We’ll be working more on this issue too, connecting the dots between PFAS and pesticide regulation. Stay tuned as we work towards adequate protections and remediation for people on the frontlines of the PFAS fight.