Environmental testing is showing just how prevalent a group of toxic chemicals linked to cancer, low infant birth weights and compromised immune systems are in Maine.
Dangerous levels of the per- and ployfluroalkyl substances — called PFAS for short — have shown up in central Maine soils, well water, dairy farms, deer meat and chicken eggs. As officials continue testing for the chemicals around the state it’s likely they will find them beyond Fairfield.
But until recently, many Mainers may never have heard of PFAS chemicals, much less be aware of the threat they pose. Now, many homeowners are concerned the substances may be found on their property.
Here’s what you need to know about PFAS in Maine, and what steps to take for your safety.
What are PFAS?
This is a class of synthetic chemical compounds. They include perfluorooctanesulfonic acid — PFOS — and perfluorooctanoic acid — PFOA. Because they are water- and oil-resistant, they are used in manufacturing to coat clothing, furniture, adhesives, food packaging, cooking surfaces, electrical wire insulation and fire-fighting foam.
Starting in the early 2000s, most manufacturers voluntarily removed PFAS from their products. But they are still used in some non-stick cookware and waterproof clothing.
Why are they so bad?
These chemicals are a major health concern because of their toxicity and persistence. These are chemicals that, once in the environment, never really go away — which is how they got the nickname “forever chemicals.”
They also have the ability to travel through different media — for example, from soil to milk to your body’s tissues — unlike other chemicals that have caused concern in the past.
The “forever chemical” moniker is a bit of a misnomer as the lifespan of PFAS can vary depending on where they are found, according to Dr. Andrew Smith, state toxicologist at the Maine Center For Disease Control and Prevention.
“It may be forever in some media, like soil,” Smith said. “But it may not be in others [and] it depends on how fast the chemicals transport through the media.”
Testing on dairy milk in Fairfield showed PFAS with half-lives between 50 and 60 days, Smith said. The eggs tested in that area showed PFAS half-lives of around a week.
How did they get into the Maine environment?
PFAS in the state’s soil and water came from several sources, according to the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.
The primary source, according to Maine DEP, is municipal sludge and papermill waste. For decades in Maine the sludge byproduct of treated municipal waste and waste from paper mills were spread as fertilizer on agricultural land in the state. Both are sources of PFAS chemicals and leached into the soil and groundwater.
Spreading of municipal waste and other sludge was temporarily halted in 2020 on farmland and towns are now required to test for PFAS in their sludge before they can spread it on non-agricultural land.
The state is currently researching other possible PFAS pathways into the environment.
Is my water safe to drink?
Officials are not ready to make a blanket statement on the overall safety of Maine’s drinking water when it comes to PFAS. Maine DEP is currently focusing its PFAS investigation on soils and private well groundwater in areas they know were previously licensed for the application of sludge.
The state legislature has set a timeline for all testing to be complete by the end of 2025, according to David Madore, acting DEP commissioner.
All community and public water systems, including schools and childcare facilities, have a legislated mandated deadline of the end of 2022 to complete testing. That information is being collected by the Maine CDC’s drinking water program.
If you are concerned about your drinking water, regardless of its source, check the DEP’s Maine Sludge and Septage Mapper to see if there has been any sludge spread in your area. Information on the map can be compared with the DEP’s list of towns prioritized for testing found here to see if and when your area will be tested.
“If a homeowner does not want to wait for the DEP to conduct the testing, they may conduct their own testing of drinking water,” Madore said.
Independent testing of your drinking water can cost between $250 and $500. The DEP has information on how to do that here. Results that show dangerous levels of PFAS in your water should be reported to Maine DEP.
What do I do if there are PFAS on my land or in my water?
PFAS in state soil and water is not necessarily a widespread issue, Smith said. Rather, it could be an issue where there is a history of land application of sludge.
If Maine DEP finds PFAS in your water, the department will provide you with bottled water until a filtration system is in place.
Is it safe to eat livestock that have consumed contaminated food or water?
Studies of samples taken from processed beef had no detectable levels of the chemical PFOA, despite the cow having been given water with high PFOA levels before it was slaughtered, according to Smith. More testing is needed to determine if there is any risk in eating meat from contaminated areas, he said. Such risk could be very animal specific.
In 2020, “startling” levels of PFOS were found in milk from a central Maine dairy farm.
PFAS have been found in eggs from Fairfeld, though no evidence of the substances were found in the eggs 10 days after the chickens were isolated from the contaminated water and soil.
Is it safe to eat crops that were grown with contaminated water?
Officials at this point have little information about how PFAS move from soil into crops.
“But there appear to be interesting differences in the way PFAS are taken up and translated in different parts of a plant,” Smith said. “Surprisingly, little of PFOS is taken up into the fruits or seeds of plants.”
If you are worried about eating anything raised or grown on your land, you should have it tested if you have reason to believe it has been contaminated by PFAS, Smith said.
“Once you know the results, you can then think on whether there is a need to worry about gardening or livestock exposure pathways,” Smith said.