Nearly everyone in Maine, and around the country, has been exposed to PFAS, a class of thousands of chemicals that are mostly used as coatings to make materials water and stain resistant. Technically known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, the chemicals are in water supplies, the ground, the air and, for most, our bodies.
These chemicals are associated with higher risks for asthma, liver damage, thyroid disease, preeclampsia, high cholesterol and decreased fertility, according to an assessment by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
Because these chemicals are long lasting and easily move through the ground, water and air, PFAS contamination is widespread.
States and the federal government are scrambling to decide how best to limit the spread of PFAS contamination and how to clean up sites of significant contamination that threaten groundwater, food supplies and, hence, human health.
Maine is no exception. Soon after taking office, Gov. Janet Mills created a task force to examine how the state can best reduce the risks from PFAS contamination. The group released its draft recommendations late last month.
The group’s calls for more testing and changes in state law to hasten the removal of PFAS contamination, are a good start, but since the scourge of PFAS is so widespread, more aggressive action is needed. The state, for example, should adopt a more restrictive level for PFAS in drinking water. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, for example, calls for a much lower exposure level than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and New Jersey has followed suit.
In the absence of federal leadership on this contamination, caution about human health consequences should guide Maine’s actions.
One hurdle, of course, is money. Like the MTBE cleanup of decades ago, the costs of fully addressing PFAS contamination will likely extend beyond the state’s ability to pay for it. This highlights the need for a national response to PFAS contamination that includes financial contributions from the companies that made these chemicals.
Public comments on the state task force’s draft recommendation are being accepted through Friday.
Many Mainers first learned about PFAS when they read or heard about Stoneridge Farm. Milk at the Arundel farm was found to contain PFAS at levels 10 times higher than the EPA’s guidelines for drinking water. The dairy farm has been “ruined,” owner Fred Stone has said because it is unable to sell its milk due to the PFAS contamination.
Previously, a well at the Kennebunk, Kennebunkport, Wells Water District was shut off in 2017 after high levels of PFAS were found there. The levels were below the EPA guidelines for drinking water, but the district’s officials decided to shut if off as a precaution.
Stone spread mill waste and sludge from the Kennebunk and Ogunquit Sewer Districts on his fields for 15 years. Farmers were encouraged to use the sludge as fertilizer because it reduced disposal costs and prevented the sludge from going to landfills. The sludge contained PFAS.
State records indicate sludge was spread at hundreds of sites statewide.
While it is true that much more remains to be learned about PFAS, what we know so far about the health consequences of exposure to these chemicals, and the extent of PFAS contamination in Maine, should prompt quick and comprehensive action to minimize exposure to these dangerous chemicals.