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Contamination from “forever chemicals,” commonly called PFAS, is so widespread that scientists estimate nearly two-thirds of Americans have drinking water that is contaminated by some form of the chemical. Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances or PFAS, are chemicals that are used as a non-stick coating, to make fabrics stain resistant and water repellant and as a fire-fighting foam, among many other uses. These chemicals have been found in nearly every American who has been tested for them.
In Maine, PFAS contamination is also widespread. PFAS has been detected at the former Brunswick Naval Air Station and the former Loring Air Force Base, and at dozens of sites across the state. The chemicals have been found in drinking water, milk, vegetation such as hay and corn used as livestock feed and in fish in Maine. Hundreds more locations where contamination is expected will be tested.
These chemicals are associated with higher risks for asthma, liver damage, thyroid disease, preeclampsia, high cholesterol and decreased fertility, according to an assessment by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
Gov. Janet Mills and the state’s congressional delegation have asked for federal funding and other support to address this widespread contamination.
So, it is welcome news that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has announced a national strategy to limit further PFAS releases into the environment and to begin to clean up contamination that has already occurred.
The EPA pledged to move quickly to set drinking water limits for PFAS under the Safe Drinking Water Act and the agency also is moving to designate PFAS as hazardous substances under the so-called Superfund law. This will allow the EPA to force companies responsible for the contamination to pay for the cleanup work or do it themselves.
The plan includes additional funding for research into where PFAS are found and what can be done to prevent their spread. Faster cleanup of PFAS contamination, particularly at military installations, is also part of the plan announced last week.
This follows similar actions in Maine, one of the first states to take aggressive actions to address PFAS contamination. In March 2019, Gov. Janet Mills created a PFAS task force. Based on its recommendations, the Legislature earlier this year set more stringent drinking water standards for PFAS and the state is installing more than 125 drinking water treatment systems. The state has also expanded testing for PFAS contamination and extended the statute of limitations for Mainers to file claims for this harm.
“PFAS contamination is a devastating problem in Maine, hurting peoples’ lives and livelihoods. That’s why we have taken aggressive action to identify and mitigate the impacts of PFAS across the state,” Mills said in a statement last Monday. “While Maine is leading on PFAS discovery and response, having the resources and support inherent in federal leadership will be a significant benefit.”
The EPA’s announcement and Maine’s action won’t immediately fix the PFAS problem, but they are important steps in identifying where this contamination has occurred, which will help better protect people from these chemicals and it will jumpstart cleanup and mitigation efforts.