Per-and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances FAQ

Frequently asked questions about per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).

About Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS)

What are per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS)? 

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, which are commonly referred to as PFAS, are a broad group of thousands of individual PFAS chemicals. These synthetic chemicals have been widely used since the 1940s. They are known for having properties resistant to heat, oil, water, and stains. These same properties also make them highly resistant to breakdown in the environment and hence, they have earned the nickname “forever chemicals.”  

Why are PFAS a concern? 

Many PFAS break down very slowly and can build up in people, animals, and the environment over time. There is evidence that exposure to certain PFAS chemicals, even at low levels, can negatively impact human health and the environment. Because of the extensive use and persistent nature of PFAS, there is widespread potential for exposure and contamination. 

What are common products that use PFAS?   

PFAS are used in many consumer and industrial products, including, but not limited to, non-stick cookware, water-repellent clothing, fast food packaging materials, personal care products, aqueous film-forming foams (or AFFFs) to extinguish flammable liquid-based fires, and other products that resist grease, oil, water, and heat. 

Where are PFAS found?   

PFAS have been found at various concentrations in drinking and groundwater, air, soil, plants, livestock and their products (like dairy and beef), fish, and humans. 

How did PFAS get into water, land, plants, and animals on farms? 

The most likely ways that PFAS have been inadvertently introduced onto farms are being located in close proximity to airports or military installations that use aqueous firefighting foams to contain fuel fires; through the use of contaminated biosolids as fertilizer; being at the receiving end of releases from industrial contamination; or through the use of contaminated groundwater.  

Testing for PFAS

What options for PFAS testing on my farm are available to me? Is there any support available for testing costs?  

Some states offer technical and financial support   for PFAS testing on farms. Consult your Cooperative Extension office or State Department of Agriculture to see if these opportunities exist in your state. 

Subject to the availability of funds, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) offers assistance to defray the costs of PFAS testing for agricultural water or soil for impacted producers. A Conservation Evaluation and Monitoring Activity (CEMA) for PFAS testing in water or soil is available through NRCS’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and can be used for testing on farms as a prescreening step to determine the presence of PFAS. This CEMA provides testing (sample collection and laboratory analysis) to detect and quantify PFAS in water or soil using Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-approved or state-approved field sampling techniques and laboratory methods. 

To learn more about PFAS testing options available through NRCS, contact your local USDA Service Center.

Are foods being tested for PFAS and if so, what has been found? 

Over the past several years USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has tested a total of 3,199 meat and poultry samples (1,919 bovine, 730 swine, and 550 chicken) finding less than 0.1% (2 bovine) samples positive for PFAS. FSIS also tested 616 Siluriformes (catfish) samples and detected PFAS in 83 samples (82 wild-caught samples and 1 farm-raised sample). During the same period, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been routinely testing fresh and processed foods on the U.S. market. No PFAS were detected in 97% of almost 800 samples of fresh and processed foods. The approximately 3% of samples where PFAS were detected included seafood (i.e., clams, cod, crab, pollock, salmon, shrimp, tilapia, and tuna) in which the majority of that seafood (74%) had detectable levels of PFAS.  

It is important to note that studies have shown that PFAS contamination in the environment where food is grown or produced may not always or directly result in food with detectable levels of PFAS. Uptake by food-producing crops and livestock depends on many factors, including the type of PFAS, characteristics of the soil and water, and the type of crop or livestock.

Learn more about results of PFAS testing in foods:

What are the current regulatory limits for PFAS chemicals in water or soil? Do they apply to farms? 

EPA recently published enforceable Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs) or national drinking water standards for six PFAS chemicals under the PFAS National Primary Drinking Water Regulation (NPDWR). These new MCLs apply to public water supply systems that supply drinking water to the public. Values for the new MCLs can be found on EPA’s PFAS website.

EPA has also published regional screening levels or RSLs for residential, consumer, and industrial exposures to soil and water for 14 PFAS chemicals to assist with developing remediation alternatives at sites contaminated with PFAS. RSLs are not enforceable standards but used to support risk-based cleanup decisions at contaminated sites for the protection of human health and the environment. More information related to the PFAS RSLs can be found at EPA's PFAS website

Because exposure and risk considerations at farms and in agricultural products can vary greatly from the current EPA published standards, state regulatory agencies may issue different values based on their own analysis or may establish criteria for acceptable PFAS limits for different agricultural samples (for example soil, water, dairy, and beef) that could impact farming operations. Producers should consult their state regulatory agency for more information on screening levels and regulatory requirements specific to their operation. 

Are there regulatory standards for PFAS levels in biosolids?    

EPA has not established standards for PFAS in biosolids. Some states may monitor for PFAS in biosolids if they are on a state-derived priority chemical list. EPA is performing a risk assessment for PFAS  contamination of biosolids that is expected to be completed by 2024. EPA’s Office of Water, the Environmental Council of the States (ECOS), and the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture (NASDA) have jointly developed principles for preventing and managing PFAS in biosolids.

Finding PFAS Contamination

What happens if I test for PFAS and find it on my farm?

If testing detects PFAS in water or soil at levels that exceed state or Federal screening levels  , reporting of data and detailed follow-up PFAS sampling might be needed. Producers should consult their state regulatory agency for more information on screening levels and regulatory requirements specific to their operation. 

What can be done to help me if I experience a loss due to my dairy cows and their milk being contaminated with PFAS? 

The Farm Service Agency (FSA) amended the Dairy Indemnity Payment Program (DIPP) to include compensation for contaminated milk, milk products and cows—including deceased or depopulated cows—for dairy producers whose cows and milk are contaminated with PFAS. To learn more or to participate in DIPP, contact your local USDA Service Center

What are my options for livestock and crop disposal if they are found to be contaminated with PFAS? 

NRCS is coordinating with EPA, based on EPA’s interim guidance, to help producers safely dispose of and address resource concerns created by affected livestock. States may also have individual guidance and options. Updated federal guidance is anticipated in 2024.  

Will PFAS impact my ability to be approved for an FSA loan or participate in an NRCS easement program?  

For FSA loans and NRCS easement programs, the agencies’ application and due diligence activities will proceed as normal. If FSA or NRCS discovers potential PFAS contamination during the environmental risk analysis portion of the agency's due diligence process, that may affect eligibility for an FSA loan or participation in an NRCS easement program.

For loans, FSA must conduct due diligence and complete an environmental risk assessment on transactions involving real property. If PFAS contamination is suspected on a property, a Phase I or Phase II Environmental Site Assessment may be required to ensure the proposed property is acceptable for program participation. FSA has various options that may be able to assist producers on a case-by-case basis while they navigate through a PFAS contamination. 

For easements, NRCS conducts a limited Phase I environmental site assessment to ensure the proposed property is acceptable for program participation. If this process identifies hazardous materials concerns, including PFAS, that may result in a finding that the parcel is ineligible. The applicant can provide the agency with a Phase II report for a reassessment of eligibility. 

Additional Information

What is the federal government doing about PFAS? 

In 2021 the Administration launched a federal-government-wide plan to combat PFAS pollution. The White House Council on Environmental Quality created an interagency committee to coordinate the federal response across multiple federal agencies including EPA, USDA, FDA, Department of Defense (DoD), Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and other federal agencies. This interagency group’s role is to coordinate, exchange information on agency actions and updates, and stay informed of emerging programmatic and scientific developments. 

Federal support provided by USDA programs in response to PFAS contamination is limited; resources currently available are not designed to comprehensively respond to the scope of the PFAS crisis. USDA is looking to build a suite of producer assistance options and to strengthen our scientific understanding of PFAS both on the farm and in the food system. Subject matter experts from across USDA’s Farm Production and Conservation (FPAC) agencies (FSA, NRCS, and Risk Management Agency (RMA)) are working to identify appropriate actions.