Every state in the country has sites contaminated by PFAS, a class of thousands of chemicals that are mostly used as coatings to make materials water and stain resistant. These chemicals, which were also used in firefighting, are associated with higher risks for asthma, liver damage, thyroid disease, high cholesterol, decreased fertility and other health problems, according to an assessment by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
Because the chemicals are so 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.
Congress has an opportunity to begin to address this nationwide problem. Last week, the House passed a bill that would add PFAS to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s hazardous substance list, which could trigger Superfund designations for hundreds of contaminated sites across the country. The bill would also require the EPA to set standards for testing, monitoring and treatment of PFAS in drinking water.
“Because the Environmental Protection Agency has dragged its feet, we have no enforceable standards for PFAS levels in our drinking water, leaving communities without the information or the funding to protect our citizens,” Rep. Chellie Pingree, who has championed PFAS regulations and cleanup, said on the floor of the House earlier this month. “And there has been no action to fund cleanup because there was no requirement to clean up these dangerous chemicals.”
The House-passed bill faces dim prospects in the Senate, and President Donald Trump has threatened to veto the measure if it reaches his desk. In a statement, the White House said it favors more study and continued work with communities rather than quick federal action. The statement also references costs, which the Congressional Budget Office estimates will exceed $300 million in federal spending by 2029, under the House bill. This is, of course, a significant sum. But, as we’ve learned from the containment and removal of other hazardous substances, costs only grow as action is delayed.
A Senate bill is more limited in scope, requiring the EPA to designate PFAS as hazardous chemicals. But, it would be better than nothing.
The problem of PFAS contamination is so widespread, and likely to worsen, that inaction is a dangerous choice.
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.
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 and 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.
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.
Given the extent of PFAS contamination, federal action — and, yes, federal funds — are needed to address the health risks from these chemicals. This includes legislation to stop future releases of PFAS and to facilitate and fund the cleanup of the contamination that already exists.