As toxic forever chemicals continue to show up in water and soils across Maine, scientists are learning more about the impact the substances have on human health. That’s led to a push at the state level to better regulate — or stop — further exposure in Maine.
When it comes to addressing PFAS — officially known as perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances — Maine is a national leader among the states. For example, Maine was only the second state after Washington to pass a bill to remove PFAS from food packaging in 2019. Starting Jan. 1, 2022, food packaging sold in Maine cannot contain intentionally introduced amounts of PFAS.
“Maine is one of the first states to actively respond to the challenges presented to communities and businesses impacted by PFAS contamination,” said Nancy McBrady, director of the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry bureau of Agriculture, Food and Rural Resources. “Federal agencies have yet to orchestrate a coordinated and comprehensive response plan. However, there are signals that they are beginning to move in that direction.”
Proposed legislation aims to tackle the presence of these chemicals and take a proactive approach to stopping the substances from further impacting the environment and human health. Nearly a dozen bills before the Legislature address a wide range of PFAS-related issues, from lowering the acceptable level of PFAS contamination in water to increasing the statute of limitations for Mainers who have been impacted by PFAS contamination.
Challenges of funding and questions of distribution could be roadblocks to success.
“I think that the package is a huge leap forward,” said Sharon Treat, senior attorney at the Institute for Agriculture & Trade Policy. “I think the case is being made here pretty clearly and it’s bipartisan and that’s a really strong start. I’m hopeful that all of these bills will pass, ultimately. Our drinking water standard would be most protective around the country, the commitment of funding has been significant and the product phase out would be leading the nation.”
Gov. Janet Mills has also earmarked $40 million for addressing the PFAS issue in Maine.
Some industry groups believe that Maine’s proposed new limits to PFAS contamination — 20 parts per trillion, as opposed to the federal advisory level of 70 parts per trillion — would be too conservative, and farmers are worried about the support they would receive from the state. Securing funding for the proposed testing and aid is also a point of contention, with some thinking that the lion’s share should be paid by industries that contributed to PFAS pollution in the first place.
Those who have found PFASs on their land think that it’s not enough, especially for consumers. Fred Stone, whose dairy farm operations were suspended after 2016 testing revealed high levels of PFAS on his land, doesn’t think that the appropriated $40 million that Gov. Janet Mills has proposed to address the issue is nearly enough, and he is concerned about the logistics of appropriating it.
“I’m not sure what the logistics of that’s going to be as far as getting it out to people,” Stone said. “$15 million is supposed to go directly to the farm aid. That’s a drop in the bucket. Logistically, it’s going to be a nightmare.”
Stone thinks that the acceptable limits for PFAS should be zero.
“How much contaminated food do you want to buy?” Stone said. “It’s like being a little bit pregnant. You’re either pregnant or you’re not.”
Toxicologists see some challenges in having such strict limitations.
“You can’t measure zero,” said Andrew Smith, state toxicologist at the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. “You can only measure down to the lowest detectable limit. We’re using a lot of conservative assumptions to arrive at numbers that are very, very protective, with the caveat here that we’re in the era of emerging science and the toxicity values may change.”
Meanwhile, state toxicologists continue to look at the exposure pathways for PFAS in the food that we eat — for example, how PFAS moves from soil to hay that dairy cows eat, or the feed for chickens, and then into the eggs and milk that end up on supermarket shelves. They hope to be able to make healthy adjustments as the results come out. For example, preliminary data show that corn kernels do not take up PFAS to the extent that grasses may, making it potentially a safe alternative crop for farmers to consider growing.
The state’s actions alone aren’t going to be enough, either. Federal action addressing the issue of PFAS is needed as well, both in order to prevent farmers like Stone from suffering like they have, but also to protect the average consumer.
“When you look at the whole scope of things here and the number of things that are contaminated, it’s going to take a lot of coordination that is hard for states,” Treat said. “The federal government is going to be really important. I very much think Maine should go forward with this, and we’ve often been leaders in getting chemicals out of consumer products, but it’s far better to have the whole country under these rules.”