Rep. Scott Landry, Jr., D-Farmington, left, greets Sen. Trey Stewart, R-Presque Isle, on Jan. 8, 2020, at the State House in Augusta. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

Pioneering Maine restrictions on “forever chemicals” could be tightened further after the federal government said that virtually any level of exposure in drinking water is unsafe, policymakers said on Thursday.

The Environmental Protection Agency issued a nonbinding health advisory on Thursday for four of the most common per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — known as PFAS — that would reduce drinking water standards from 70 parts per trillion to four parts per quadrillion, a level 17,500 times lower. Maine’s interim standard is 20 parts per trillion.

That federal announcement was expected. It neither puts a legally enforceable standard into place nor comes with money to help states enforce it. It could be another year before the EPA adopts the recommendation formally and even more time to set further policies.

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Maine lawmakers said that time should be used to review the state’s current standards, which include the world’s strictest limits on the chemicals being increasingly found in agricultural land and water, and consider how the state would adopt near-zero standards and enforce them.

“I do think the amount should be zero, but if there is going to be a priority for us, there should be money behind it,” said Sen. Trey Stewart, R-Presque Isle, who sponsored the bill lowering the water standard last year.

Stewart said the state has made progress in helping people affected by PFAS contamination, including a $60 million remediation fund for farmers. But he noted a law to ban sludge spreading is already generating higher costs for municipalities. Moving too quickly on a requirement without state efforts to help could cause similar problems, he said.

The EPA’s new advisory includes levels that are so small as to be practically undetectable, said Patrick MacRoy, the deputy director of Defend Our Health. He said the state should respond to the recommendation quickly, noting it could take years for the EPA to enforce it.

Even if Maine does not adopt the standards formally, it could start taking remediation actions and install filters in water systems testing above that limit, MacRoy said. That would reduce exposure not just to the most well-known PFAS chemicals but a broader spectrum of chemicals. Those standards will likely affect limits for  milk and soil down the line, he said.

The EPA is not expected to finalize its recommendations until 2023. Spokespeople for the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, which runs the state’s drinking water program, and Gov. Janet Mills said the advisory would be taken into consideration as the state works to put in place a final drinking water standard by 2024.

The guidelines should be seen as an opportunity to review standards and determine if they need to change quicker, said Rep. Lori Gramlich, D-Old Orchard Beach, who sponsored a bill to ban the sale of products with intentionally added PFAS beginning in 2023 unless the inclusion of the chemicals is unavoidable.

As the scope of the PFAS contamination grows, Maine should prepare for more stringent limits by ensuring people have enough testing and remediation tools, she said.

“We have the ability to be ahead of this and adjust our numbers if we need to,” she said.

Adopting a more stringent standard and enforcing it at the state level would be challenging, said Sen. Rick Bennett, R-Oxford, who co-sponsored Gramlich’s bill. But he said the advisory validates state efforts to limit exposure. Dramatic steps might be needed to root chemicals out.

“We introduce these chemicals and pay for the consequences later,” he said.