Last month the state issued a “do not eat” advisory for deer meat harvested in and around Fairfield due to unsafe levels of so-called forever chemicals found in the animals. Now testing data has shown levels of those chemicals in some chicken eggs from the same area.
The eggs that were tested, according to Dr. Andrew Smith, state toxicologist with the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, were from two Fairfield homesteads and households that had already tested positive for high levels of the toxic per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — or PFAS — in their water.
The new state standard for water, according to Smith, is 20 parts per trillion, which the homeowners achieved after treating their water.
Used in everything from non-stick pans to waterproof clothing, PFAS have been linked to a number of chronic illnesses in people, including cancer. Here in Maine, the chemicals are increasingly showing up in the food people grow, raise and hunt after sludge was spread on farm fields.
In Fairfield, some families were concerned specifically about their eggs.
“Maine CDC was asked whether eggs from their chickens [that were] provided high PFAS well water were safe to eat,” Smith said. “We also tested whether after the water was treated, would they be safe to eat.”
Turns out, when it comes to eggs, “forever chemicals” are not forever.
The eggs were first tested at the end of 2020. At the time, toxicity levels in the eggs and in the water provided to the chickens were high in one of the two homes.
A second round of testing in March after the chickens had been switched over to treated, PFAS-free water, showed a significant drop in the eggs’ PFAS levels.
All of the chemicals, Smith said, were found in the yolks of the eggs. That made sense, as a German study of PFAS chemicals in chickens showed that most of the toxins were found in the chickens’ plasma. Plasma plays a major role in yolk development.
In addition, it was found that PFAS in eggs has a very short half life.
Chemists use the term “half life” to measure how long it takes for a chemical to drop to half its original concentration.
When it came to the eggs, the half life of some of those forever chemicals could be measured in days, Smith said. His team discovered that once the chickens were taken off PFAS contaminated water, there was no evidence of any chemicals in the eggs after about 10 days.
However, Smith said that further testing showed there are still plenty of PFAS toxins available to the chickens.
“We went back in June to test the eggs again and got a surprise,” Smith said. “We knew the chickens were back out free ranging and wondered if the soils were a pathway for the PFAS to the chickens.”
The testing showed that it was.
The PFAS levels in the eggs from chickens that had been free ranging had shot back up to dangerous levels that matched their pre-treated water levels. Chickens that had been left in enclosed areas and eating only the feed provided by their owners, were producing eggs with lower PFAS chemicals.
“That showed if there are levels of chemicals in the soils, the chickens can get to them,” Smith said.
Much of the PFAS in Maine soil and water got there from direct application of biosolids in treated waste and sludge spread by municipalities. Many of these sites are on the list to be tested for PFAS levels by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.
PFAS in the Fairfield area were first discovered after routine milk sample testing, which found that a local dairy farm was exposed to high levels of the substances. Increased testing in that area showed that multiple fields, farms, wells and waters in the area have elevated levels of PFAS.
“We got very involved in response to what was found in Fairfield,” Smith said. “People were asking, ‘Yeah, now that I have my water treated is it okay to eat eggs from my chickens? Is it okay to still use my garden if I have been irrigating it for years with the contaminated water?’”
Smith said the testing so far has extended to only the eggs sourced from the area. All testing was done by the United States Food and Drug Administration laboratory, he said.
Soil samples collected from the same homesteads and farms have been sent out, but those results are not expected until the end of the year or early January.
Future testing will help determine if yard soils are responsible for the PFAS levels in free-range chicken eggs, Smith said. Since not all PFAS chemicals are created equally, he said that information is crucial in mapping out a mitigation strategy moving forward.
Smith said they are also working to determine what exact path the chemicals take to get from soil and water into poultry and livestock.
“We will be keeping track and following up,” Smith said. “These homeowners and homesteaders just want to know what they are dealing with.”