Ashley Gooldrup and Troy Reny are pictured in January 2020 after they bought their house in Fairfield. Ten months later they learned their water was highly contaminated with PFAS chemicals. Credit: Contributed photo

The federal government will evaluate the potential health dangers associated with people’s exposure to PFAS in the Fairfield area, signaling a growing concern about the risks to residents who unknowingly drank contaminated water for years.

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, confirmed it will create a “health consultation” report for the central Maine area and has already started collecting available data on local contamination from per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances in water, soil and food.

The group of human-made chemicals has been linked to a range of harmful health effects, but no one has yet tried to draw a line between the contamination in Maine and the health of residents. While it can be difficult to quantify the risk associated with health problems that are still being studied, the federal government’s interest in Fairfield reflects the alarming severity of the contamination in the area.

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A health consultation is different from a research study. Once the agency reviews available local environmental data to see how much PFAS contamination is in various samples, it will then determine people’s level of exposure to that contamination to gauge their potential health risk. It may also recommend steps to protect public health. So far the Fairfield area appears to have the most extensive PFAS contamination in Maine.

“I’m very grateful and very glad that they’re coming. I’m glad we’re getting the national attention,” said Ashley Gooldrup of Fairfield. “But it’s concerning. It’s scary. To have them take us on, you know you’re in a problem area.”

Gooldrup lives on Howe Road, where state officials have discovered some of the highest levels of PFAS in well water. As part of the group Fairfield Water Concerned Citizens, she first petitioned the federal agency in May 2021 to conduct the analysis.

The agency replied in a letter on March 15 that it will “conduct an in-depth evaluation of potential health effects from exposure to PFAS in the environment.” After it reviews available environmental sampling data, it will turn to determining people’s exposure levels to PFAS.

Coping with PFAS

To do so, ATSDR will need to understand some specific things about the area, such as how long PFAS contamination has been in the environment, and how frequently people come into contact with the soil or ingest water or foods, such as deer and fish, with PFAS, the ATSDR communications office said in an email.

It will host community sessions in early fall to gather information from people locally. Residents might provide information about the history of contamination or health issues in the area.

“Community input is critical to the success of an accurate Health Consultation,” the ATSDR said.

Gooldrup and her fiance, Troy Reny, bought their home in January 2020, she said. That November, they got a call one night from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection. They were told to stop drinking their water immediately. It had tested for PFAS at 25,600 parts per trillion — 1,280 times the state’s current water drinking standard.

The chemicals have been linked to kidney and testicular cancer, increased cholesterol, vaccine resistance in children and reproductive complications.

Gooldrup knows the health issues facing her neighbors and worries about her own health, she said. She now has a water treatment system, but she wonders whether she could raise a family on land that’s contaminated and whether she would ever be able to sell the property.

She has learned that even the dust in her house is contaminated with PFAS, meaning the insulation in the walls may need to be replaced. She’s been cautioned to wear an N-95 mask when mowing the lawn.

“It’s scary thinking about all the people who have health problems. If we can’t get out of this house, is it going to be us?” she said.

Sludge was historically spread behind her house, on a dairy farm’s fields, Gooldrup said. The state approved permits to put down the treated wastewater solids as a type of fertilizer and touted its benefits. Testing later showed the fields were contaminated with PFAS.

As of June 1, the state had sampled 418 wells in Fairfield as part of an extensive and ongoing investigation to figure out where the chemicals are present. About 40 percent of the wells so far have come back with PFAS levels higher than Maine’s drinking water standard.

It is notoriously tricky to confirm that certain chemical contaminants cause specific illnesses because many factors can influence a person’s health. But researchers are trying to learn more about how PFAS chemicals can harm populations. ATSDR is currently investigating exposure to PFAS and possible health effects associated with the chemicals in more than 30 communities across the country.

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Without more research findings it may be difficult for the ATSDR to draw new conclusions about the health risks associated with people’s PFAS exposure in Fairfield.

ATSDR previously evaluated exposure to PFAS in the private drinking water wells near Pease International Tradeport in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, at the behest of the U.S. Air Force. The source of PFAS was believed to be firefighting foam used on the former Pease Air Force Base. Chemicals from the foam likely traveled from the base, which is now a business park, through soil and water, to nearby wells.

In its health consultation report, published in February, the ATSDR said it couldn’t determine the risk to people drinking from 30 specific wells, in part because of the lack of scientific information on health effects from the detected PFAS chemicals.

It determined PFAS may have increased the risk of harmful, non-cancer health effects, especially to young children, who drank from five particular wells or were born to mothers who did. But the cancer risk was uncertain because, although there is evidence that two specific chemicals, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS), are carcinogenic, “the science on PFOA, PFOS, and other PFAS is too limited at this time to quantify risk.”

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Erin Rhoda

Erin Rhoda is the editor of Maine Focus, a team that conducts journalism investigations and projects at the Bangor Daily News. She also writes for the newspaper, often centering her work on domestic and...