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We knew that PFAS contamination was widespread. But the fact that it’s contaminating deer meat in the Fairfield area is an eye-opening reminder of just how extensive this problem is. It’s enough to wonder if these “forever chemicals” should be called “everywhere chemicals.”
It’s not exactly a surprise that per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, chemicals known as PFAS that have been used in various applications including non-stick coating and water-resistant materials, are increasingly being identified in Maine and across the country. After all, these chemicals have already been found in nearly every American who has been tested for them. Scientists estimate that nearly two-thirds of Americans have drinking water that is contaminated with some form of the chemicals.
This, unfortunately, isn’t news. What is news is that high levels of PFAS have now been detected in some deer killed by hunters in the Fairfield area. On Nov. 23, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention issued a “Do Not Eat” advisory for deer hunted in that area.
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In October, the state identified 34 Maine towns — including Fairfield — where the Maine Department of Environmental Protection will test for soil and water contamination. That important effort is focusing on sites where municipal and industrial waste has been used as fertilizer. The Department of Environmental Protection discovered PFAS in Fairfield well water last year, which was caused by the use of waste sludge as fertilizer on farm fields.
PFAS chemicals are associated with higher risks for asthma, liver damage, thyroid disease, preeclampsia, high cholesterol and decreased fertility, according to an assessment from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry. These substances can break down slowly, causing them to persist in the environment and earning them the “forever chemicals” label.
Dealing with chemicals that are this long lasting and this pervasive is a daunting task. But a critical early step is identifying the extent of the problem. In order to mitigate spread and clean up contaminated sites, you need to know where they are. To that end, it is encouraging that the state is putting unprecedented resources into the PFAS identification efforts and has taken other steps like enacting more stringent PFAS drinking water standards and extending the statute of limitations for Mainers to claim PFAS-related harm.
Recent movement at the federal level also offers some hope, with the October announcement of a national strategy to limit further PFAS releases and cleanup contamination that has already happened, and with the bipartisan infrastructure package signed into law in November including $10 billion to help get PFAS out of drinking water. Nearly $70 million in federal water infrastructure funding, some of it related to PFAS, is coming to Maine in 2022 as part of the first installment of that infrastructure package.
READ MORE ‘FOREVER CHEMICAL’ COVERAGE
As state and national action moves forward, some local impacts are already obvious and mounting. The newest discovery of PFAS-contaminated deer in the Fairfield area hits home and hits hard.
The experience of Fairfield’s Alex Poulin is a worrying snapshot into a larger problem. He had already started hunting outside of his hometown because of PFAS concerns, having learned about elevated level PFAS in local wells last year (including his grandmother’s). He rightly figured that if the chemicals were impacting people, they’d be affecting wildlife, too.
“Being an outdoorsman and a lover of the outdoors, I really feel like this is going to, or has the potential to, really hurt the hunting and fishing and recreational part of the outdoors because there’s no way to get rid of this stuff,” he said.
His concerns are on target. The state and federal governments’ continued PFAS response needs to be, too.