A student walks by a lobster fishing mural at Deer Isle-Stonington High School in 2014. Recent tests show the school's water has high levels of PFAS. Credit: Brian Feulner / BDN

Three coastal Hancock County schools are pursuing water treatment systems after they found high levels of chemicals linked to serious illnesses in their water.

Mount Desert Island High School, Brooklin Elementary School and Deer-Isle Stonington High School have some of Maine’s highest levels of PFAS — per-and poly-fluoroalkyl substances — so far discovered in ongoing tests of Maine’s public water systems and schools, according to water sample data from the state.

Tests at the three schools from the spring found there were as high as 85 parts per trillion at Mount Desert Island High School, 106.6 parts per trillion in Brooklin and 122.8 parts per trillion at the high school in Deer Isle. The state requires action to be taken if the levels of PFAS chemicals, a series of chemicals that have been linked to health problems, are above 20 parts per trillion.

A 2021 law requires all public water systems, schools and other facilities to be tested for the chemicals by the end of the year.

Many results are still pending, but, so far, only a mobile home park in Houlton and a housing complex in Glenburn have tested higher than the schools as of July 5.

The current standard in Maine of 20 parts per trillion is for six different PFAS chemicals. It is among the strictest regulations in the country and could be tightened further by summer of 2024. The federal Environmental Protection Agency last month issued a health advisory that warned of potential negative health effects of some PFAS chemicals from concentrations at a fraction of 1 part per trillion.

MDI notified parents of the issue after test results came back in the spring, and the school started using bottled water for drinking and cooking at the end of the school year, said Mike Zboray, the district superintendent.

The district is in the process of ordering a $30,000 filtration system that will hopefully be in place this summer, before the approximately 500 students return to school in Bar Harbor.

“If it’s not installed in time, there will be bottled water for people to use,” Zboray said.

Zboray went through a similar process while he was the principal at Trenton Elementary School. That school found high PFAS levels 2017 after testing done by the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. He was not sure why the MDI high school’s water had such high levels and said that residents around the school were also getting tests done.

Officials at School Union 76, which oversees both the Brooklin and Deer-Isle Stonington schools, did not immediately return a request for comment on Monday. But the state testing results said they were also pursuing treatment options and the Island Ad-Vantages reported last month that Deer Isle-Stonington was planning to go out to bid for the installation of a filtration system.

PFAS have been found in a growing number of wells throughout the state and are linked to kidney cancer, thyroid disease and other serious health problems.

The chemicals, which have been devastating to Maine farmers, were used throughout the United States in a host of different products, including nonstick cookware, waterproof clothing, food packaging and firefighting foams.