When a “do not eat” advisory was issued last week for deer killed in Fairfield, Alex Poulin was not the least bit surprised.
Poulin has extended family in the Somerset County town, where the presence of Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in well water — resulting from the use of waste sludge on farm fields — was discovered in September 2020 by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.
“My grandmother was one of the first ones to have her well tested,” said Poulin, who also lives in Fairfield. “She’s been drinking that water for 18 years and hers was almost 100 times higher [in PFAS] than the recommended limit.”
For several years, Poulin routinely hunted deer from the affected area. This fall, he did his hunting elsewhere.
More than 500 deer were harvested from 2016-20 in Fairfield alone, according to Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife data. But last week’s revelation that high levels of PFAS were found in Fairfield deer dealt a blow to Poulin, who hunted local deer to provide healthy food for his family only to find out they were tainted by so-called forever chemicals.
Exposure to high levels of PFAS may impact the immune system and reduce antibody responses to vaccines, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Studies have found the chemicals also may lead to increased risk of cancer and high blood pressure or pre-eclampsia in pregnant women and small decreases in infant birth weights.
“I’ve been thinking about, my family’s been eating that deer. Could it be contaminated with the [PFAS]?” Poulin said. “I’ve got a 4-year-old son. He loves his deer meat. Have I been giving him something that could potentially harm him?”
He is saddened that the discovery of high levels of PFAS, and the recommendations to not eat the meat and to dispose of it, means people won’t have venison this year and that the deers’ lives were taken in vain.
Poulin was even compelled to throw out some of his own uneaten venison from 2019 and 2020 because those deer came from Fairfield.
“I hunt to feed my family, so I always take pride as soon as I harvest an animal, I thank the animal for helping provide for my family,” Poulin said. “And to know that some of that animal is going to go to waste is truly heartbreaking.”
After learning of the presence of PFAS in the water in 2020, Poulin couldn’t help but wonder what effect the toxic manufactured chemicals might be having on area wildlife in addition to farm animals and well water.
“I hunt. I fish. I consume that wildlife,” Poulin said. “Those things obviously have to be affected as well.”
Having lived in Fairfield for the last five years, he didn’t wait around to get answers. Instead, he took action.
Last fall, he expressed his concerns in a letter to DIF&W, then in October asking for input from other hunters on the Maine Deer Hunters Facebook page.
Poulin has done considerable research on PFAS, which are found in myriad consumer products, in industrial applications and, as a result, in humans.
This fall, Poulin was fortunate to harvest two deer. But he didn’t hunt in Fairfield.
“It made logical sense to me that if it’s hurting us, it’s going to be affecting our wildlife,” he said. “So I made the decision to go hunt another town that was further away in hopes that I wouldn’t have to encounter it.”
Even so, Poulin admitted he can’t be sure those deer aren’t also affected by PFAS.
Everyone in the Poulin family wasn’t as fortunate with their hunting season.
“My dad’s hunted every year forever. He hasn’t hunted this year,” he said, explaining that other opportunities did not present themselves.
Poulin’s sister and future brother-in-law also hunted outside the area this fall to avoid contaminants.
Eating wild game is not the only concern for Poulin and his family. They also enjoy growing their own food, in part for the health benefits.
The recent findings would seem to indicate those vegetables also are tainted.
“We have been doing that for years and it’s not really that healthy because of what’s in our water, what’s in our soil, what’s in the air,” he said.
Poulin looks to the future with doubt and worry in terms of his recreational pursuits.
“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.
He is grateful that his grandmother and some friends in Fairfield have benefited from water filtration systems installed by the state to help deal with PFAS. However, many people have already endured significant exposure over a period of years.
His hope is the state will conduct more widespread testing to help residents make informed decisions about what is happening in their areas.
“I feel like everybody’s well should be tested [for PFAS] in the entire state because you need to know that,” Poulin said.