Energy & Environment

Toxic ‘forever chemicals’ may be contaminating pesticides

Construction crew works on water line extension
PFAS contaminated drinking water in the Bennington area, and a partial solution was to extend town water lines to affected areas. File photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger.

As Vermont continues to monitor the extent of PFAS contamination across the state, a nonprofit group is calling on state agencies to research whether the toxic chemicals are contaminating pesticides, too. 

The Conservation Law Foundation pointed to at least three types of mosquito control pesticides that were found to contain dangerously high concentrations of PFAS, according to studies conducted last fall by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

Both organizations signed a letter addressed May 17 to the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets and the Agency of Natural Resources.

“It’s likely the tip of a toxic iceberg in terms of how many pesticides have this issue of PFAS contamination,” said Colin Antaya, a legal fellow with Conservation Law Foundation. 

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or “PFAS,” are a family of thousands of chemicals sometimes nicknamed “forever chemicals” because they do not break down naturally in the environment. 

PFAS are linked to several health effects, including cancer, behavioral and developmental problems in infants and children, fertility and pregnancy problems, and immune system problems. 

They’re also bioaccumulative, which means they accumulate in living organisms, and are toxic to humans even in extremely small concentrations, creating a “public health perfect storm,” Antaya said. 

Vermont is already looking into PFAS contamination in pesticides, but the level of contamination appears to be much lower than in municipal waste, according to Cary Giguere, an official with the Agency of Agriculture who oversees the state’s pesticide program. 

PFAS are found in several household objects, and their presence travels from the supply chain to the waste management system. They’re released every time you flush the toilet, pump a septic tank, or even cook with certain nonstick pans, Giguere said. 

PFAS were also recently identified in organic fertilizers that repurpose biosolids, the left-behind substance that is produced during wastewater treatment. 

The Environmental Protection Agency maintains that the PFAS found in certain pesticides are actually due to the special type of “armored” container that the pesticides are stored in. 

Manufacturers began armoring the containers through a process of fluorination in response to guidelines created by the EPA in 2009, which set new standards for containers holding pesticides. The PFAS introduced in fluorination are then thought to seep into the pesticide. 

“The fluorination of containers really needs to stop,” Giguere said. 

But PFAS might be coming from sources other than fluorinated containers, according to more data from Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. One pesticide the group tested was stored in metal barrels, not fluorinated plastic.

Other tests revealed multiple kinds of PFAS, which suggest “at least one other source of contamination in addition to fluorination of pesticide packaging,” the letter said.

The groups said Vermont agencies should develop a plan to test all pesticide products registered in the state, and coordinate with the Department of Health to examine the extent of environmental and public health impacts of PFAS contamination. 

Bennington and South Burlington

The Agency of Agriculture is currently focused on two main contamination sites, in Bennington and South Burlington.  

Vermont discovered toxic PFAS in 2016 in Bennington drinking water wells near two former ChemFab factories that made Teflon coating. The discovery spurred outrage among residents, many of whom were found to have diagnoses in line with those linked with PFAS, and a class-action lawsuit followed. 

In March 2020, PFAS were found in the groundwater near the Vermont Air National Guard Base, located at Burlington International Airport in South Burlington. The contamination was mostly due to the use of now-banned firefighting foam, according to a draft report.  

As state agencies continue to fight PFAS contamination, they will at least have two new legislative weapons in the arsenal: S.20 and S.102, both signed by Gov. Phil Scott last week. 

S.102 gives the Agency of Agriculture the power to regulate contaminants in agricultural products, including pesticides, fertilizers and other soil additives. No other state has introduced similar legislation, Giguere said. 

S.20 puts restrictions on the sale of certain products known to sometimes contain PFAS like firefighter foam, food packaging and stain treatments. 

A conference call involving Giguere, other New England agriculture officials and the regional branch of the EPA is scheduled for Thursday, and Giguere expects to come out of it with a better idea of how to move forward. 

Officials face a choice with regard to the fluorinated containers: either pull them out of the supply chain, or ban their future production. 

“That’s the question that needs to be answered, but the letter that was sent helped us identify that question,” Giguere said.

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Seamus McAvoy

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