Wider testing for ‘forever chemicals’ to step up in new year

FAIRFIELD – State agencies investigating the growing prevalence of ‘forever chemicals’ face a daunting task in the New Year as they seek to expand testing in a growing number of Maine cities and across the country. animals that roam in areas of known contamination.

The chemicals investigation has grown exponentially over the past year, from a concern in isolated areas to a statewide priority plunging into the contamination of water, soil, animals and more.

Fairfield has been identified as a hotspot, the result of farmers using sludge from paper mills and municipal processing plants to fertilize their fields. Investigators were taken to a Fairfield dairy farm in 2020 after a random sample of milk found high levels of chemicals, known as PFAS, or per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances.

The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife issued a no-eat advisory for deer in the Fairfield area in November after finding a few with PFAS levels so high their venison shouldn’t be eaten more than three times a year. And subsequently, PFAS were found in chicken eggs in the area.

Even before the findings, inspectors had found the chemicals in the fish in the Fairfield fish ponds off Industrial Drive and placed signs saying the fish should not be eaten.

As for next year, wildlife testing will include turkeys in the Fairfield area and additional testing on deer, and possibly other waterfowl, said Mark Latti, communications director on inland fisheries and wildlife.

“We have had preliminary discussions on how this will be conducted, but we have yet to work out the details,” Latti said.

The first priority will be turkeys as the hunting season for them begins in May. The goal is to complete testing before the hunting season for each animal, Latti said. A key aspect of testing will be to ensure that the animals tested have not wandered outside their home range.

The legislator responds

PFAS are a group of man-made chemicals that were first created in the 1940s. Both oil and water resistant, the chemicals have been used in a variety of products, from packaging to packaging. food with fire-fighting foam. But chemicals are linked to a variety of health issues in people, and they don’t break down in the environment or in the body, which is why they’re known as chemicals forever.

PFAS contamination in Maine has been linked to land application of sludge, a by-product of wastewater treatment. Sludge has been used as an alternative to fertilizer since the 1970s. Sludge is still prevalent today, but must meet testing levels for PFAS, according to David Madore, communications director for the Department of Environmental Protection. from Maine. When not spread on the ground, sludge is landfilled or turned into compost.

But even though the sludge used today does not contain PFAS, the state is still working to determine the extent of the contamination across the state.

For residents of Fairfield, after the chemicals first appeared on the Ohio Hill Road dairy farm, they were later detected in private wells that many residents use for water.

At the start of 2021, the DEP’s investigation was limited to Fairfield and had identified 29 contaminated wells. At the end of the year, the investigation found 194 Fairfield wells with PFAS levels above the new legal limit for water, and the investigation expanded to include neighboring areas of Benton, Oakland and Unity Township.

As it became clear that contamination is a problem statewide, the legislature responded by passing a number of PFAS related bills.

A major element was to establish a lower legal limit for PFAS in drinking water. Before the bill was passed, DEP used the Federal Environmental Protection Agency’s health notice for PFAS in drinking water – 70 parts per trillion. But the new limit lowered it to 20 parts per trillion.

When the DEP finds a well that has contamination above the legal limit, it provides the household with bottled water to drink until a carbon filtration system can be installed and tested. The department has so far installed around 160 filtering systems.

Prioritize testing

In the new year, testing will not focus solely on the Fairfield area, as a number of towns in central Maine can expect DEP inspectors to stop.

Legislation passed over the summer required that every sludge spreading site be tested for contamination. But the timeline is still pending.

The department has released a list of cities in the state that will be the first priority for testing in the coming months. But there is no finalized timeline for testing yet, Madore said.

“The DEP prioritizes all sites where the application of sewage treatment plant sludge has occurred in Maine at four levels (Levels I, II, III and IV) to designate the approximate schedule for sampling, ”Madore said via email. “The sites are ranked in order of priority based on several criteria, including the volume of land applied, the fact that several generators used a site, the type of wastewater and the proximity of the site to the water supply. “

Level 1 sites are places where at least 10,000 cubic meters of sludge has been spread, where houses are within half a mile of the sludge, and where PFAS is likely to have been in the sludge, based on ratings from known sources.

The towns in central Maine on this list are Albion, Canaan, Sidney, Skowhegan, Thorndike, and Unity.

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