PFAS: The “forever chemicals” with a troubling impact, even on farming

By Don “Doc” Sanders

There’s a broad class of highly toxic chemicals called PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances). About 14,000 of them. But never mind remembering their scientific names, let alone learning how to pronounce them.

Instead, remember PFAS by their common moniker, “forever chemicals.” They earn this descriptive handle because they break down very slowly and cause long-lasting catastrophic damage to the environment, health, and even the livelihood of farmers, like Art Schaap and his wife. They were (note my use of the past tense) the fifth generation of their family to own and operate Highland Dairy, just a few miles from Cannon Air Force base near Clovis, New Mexico. 

Until recent years, Highland Dairy milked about 4,000 cows. I first read about the dairy and PFAS five or six years ago when the chemicals were detected at the dairy. 

A primary mission of their neighbor, Cannon Air Force Base, is to train airmen to extinguish devastating fires caused by plane crashes, bombings and fuel explosions. One of their primary strategies was to smother fires with a firefighting foam. You guessed it — a foam that contained PFAS.

Chemical run-off from the foam ended up in groundwater, which gradually migrated to farms in the area — including Highland Dairy. Testing found that thousands of Highland Dairy’s cows were loaded with PFAS from the water they drank. 

The PFAS were also detected in the cows’ milk. And the Schaaps tested positive for PFAS.

However, the Department of Defense totally disavowed any responsibility for the PFAS contamination from the air base.

After their cows were diagnosed with PFAS, the Schaaps continued feeding and milking them. But they had to dump the milk in a pit made for that purpose. Plus, they were not permitted to sell the cows. 

In essence, the Schaaps’ life as dairy farmers was put on hold. They could no longer earn a living from their herd, and they were under the constant supervision of government officials. Yet, financial support always seemed to come to them, just in time, to stay afloat another month.  

The Department of Defense turned their back on the Schaaps. That left the State of New Mexico to provide financial support for the damages to their dairy farm. A New Mexico superfund supported an attempt to clean up the contamination. Ultimately, after two years of government dithering, the Schaaps were ordered to relinquish their cows to be euthanized and composted on the farm.

Can you imagine the Schaaps’ emotional trauma over losing their herd and vocation? Plus, their estimated $6 million financial loss and the cost to clean up the farm. And to the bitter end, the Department of Defense refused to own up to their role in the tragedy. 

So, what exactly are PFAS? They’re chemicals ubiquitously used for many purposes in addition to fire retardant. Scientists discovered in the early 1940s that PFAS have tremendous heat-resistant properties. First used by the military, these compounds eventually were discovered to be useful in producing non-stick baking dishes, skillets and fry pans.      

PFAS are also used on food contact surfaces such as popcorn bags, pizza boxes, fast food wrappers and other food packaging. They make cleanup easier. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has recorded more than 14,000 uses of different types of PFAS.  

The negative side of PFAS was first reported in the 1980s by a farmer in Parkersburg, West Virginia. He filed a lawsuit against the Dupont Washington Works Plant in Parkersburg, which was incorporating long-chain PFAS to smooth out the Teflon coating for skillets.  

The lawsuit accused DuPont of making him and his family and animals chronically ill by discharging PFAS into the environment, from its smokestacks and discharge into waterways.

The farmer‘s lawsuit set off a 20-year legal battle that’s retold in the 2019 movie Dark Waters. The case resulted in health assessments, biomonitoring in Parkersburg and tougher regulations on the use of long-chain PFAS.

PFAS contamination of the environment leads to dietary intake, dust inhalation, absorption through the skin and even maternal transfer to babies in utero and through breast milk. 

PFAS can enter the water supply by a host of sources: run-off from contaminated sites like manufacturing plants, contaminated biosolids or sludge, landfills, or a direct flow into rivers and lakes, wells and aquifers.

Clouds over smokestacks of manufacturing facilities can carry contaminants hundreds of miles from the source before dropping them in rain, to the ground, or in ocean currents that carry the pollution even further. Though PFAS can be detected in the outside air, oftentimes, the concentration can be 100 times greater in air circulated inside a building.  

Here are a couple health principles regarding PFAS: 

  • Short-chain PFAS, which have only a couple of carbon atoms, have a lower toxicity risk, versus long-chain PFAS, which often contain eight or more carbon atoms and have been proven to cause major health complications. 
  • The longer a PFAS chain, the greater risk of adverse effects on the human liver, including enlargement (hyperplasia), disintegration (necrosis), and decreased cholesterol and triglycerides.
  • If you have high cholesterol and triglycerides, you’re probably wondering what’s wrong with that last effect. The problem with this is that your body needs to maintain a normal blood level of these lipids to ensure that your hormonal system functions properly.

Laboratory researchers report that the half-life of PFAS in lab mice ranges from a few days to maybe a week or so. But the half-life in pigs is almost two years (634 days). Because the toxicity of PFAS varies among species, a significant amount of research is still needed.

Another interesting aspect is that higher exposure to long-chain PFAS can cause significant weight gain.  

For more on the Highland Dairy, visit:

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One comment

  1. Interesting article but you also missed fluorinated HDPE containers as carriers of PFAS contamination. Many crop protection containers are fluorinated because of the nature of the aggressive chemicals being packaged. It is not the crop protection chemical that is the carrier of the PFAS contamination but rather the container itself. See EPA website for further information regarding fluorinated HDPE containers in the AGCHEM industry.

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