Military Pollution Is Threatening Dairy Farmers in New Mexico

Military Pollution Is Threatening Dairy Farmers in New Mexico

Source:, February 24, 2019
By: S.E. Smith

PFAS contamination is grabbing lots of headlines this year, drawing attention to a previously little-known issue with huge stakes for many communities. These chemicals pose serious risks — as is currently on display in New Mexico, where thousands of dairy cows are set to be killed because they’re producing milk that isn’t safe to sell.

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, as they’re formally known, are a broad class of chemicals that have been around since the 1950s in products like nonstick pans, cosmetics, grease-resistant compounds, fire retardants and much more. PFAS can be found in soil, air, and groundwater, and these chemicals may affect the immune and endocrine systems, interfere with reproduction and increase the risk of cancer.

In response to growing concern about the issue, the EPA has developed a working plan for addressing the sites with high PFAS levels, some of which are military bases like

And that brings us back to cows.

The military has been primarily worried about what’s happening when humans drink contaminated water, working on a mitigation plan to address the problem and make communities safer. It has not considered the agricultural implications, and you may be surprised to learn that New Mexico is a major producer of dairy in the United States.

Or was. Cows contaminated with PFAS can’t produce milk that’s safe to drink, and that’s leaving ranchers in the position of having to kill their livestock.

At the same time, those ranchers are learning that their crops are contaminated if they’re also cultivating plants. And for those who live on or near the farm, the chemicals are also in their own bodies. In other words, PFAS contamination is ruining livelihoods as well as lives.

The Guardian reports that officials have been aware of a problem since at least 2017, but they didn’t alert the public. This falls into a larger pattern of failing to disclose military pollution in a timely fashion, leaving communities exposed to known hazards for far longer than necessary — and it’s not a great way to cultivate trust and a desire to collaborate within affected communities. It also endangered far-flung communities, as ranchers were unwittingly selling unsafe milk to dairy conglomerates that mixed it with milk from all over the country before selling it.

And it gets worse. A plume of PFAS contamination from Cannon is getting close to seeping into the Ogalalla aquifer.

This precious resource is the largest aquifer in the United States, touching eight states with a 174,000 mile span. It’s a major source of water for many communities, and contamination would be a disaster.

Military sites aren’t the sole source of PFAS. Researchers at Northeastern University have been diligently tracking PFAS at a range of sites, including industrial zones and military bases, in a massive open-source database. Their work highlights the fact that contaminants are sometimes used for decades before anyone understands that they are harmful, and it can take decades more to identify what’s happening and start to take steps to mitigate it. In the meantime, entire generations of people can acquire illnesses as a result of exposure.

Now that the EPA has announced that it will be getting more actively involved with the PFAS issue, it’s a good thing to keep an eye on. The agency has a responsibility to protect the safety of our air, water and soil — and the public must hold it accountable.

Cannon Air Force Base in New Mexico.

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