A new federal report recommends more people receive tests to check PFAS levels in their blood, but those tests aren’t yet widely available from Maine health care providers.
The recommendations from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, released Thursday, advise medical providers to offer PFAS blood tests to people who live or work in areas contaminated by the harmful “forever chemicals” that have been linked to a variety of health problems.
Those criteria apply to wide swaths of Maine, but the state’s largest health care organizations generally don’t widely offer PFAS blood tests to their patients.
While patients wait potentially months or years for the national recommendations to prompt changes at their local health care facilities, it may be more valuable to test water sources for PFAS, said Dr. Dora Anne Mills, chief health improvement officer of MaineHealth, which includes hospitals in southern, western and midcoast Maine and affiliated medical practices.
“Over half of people in Maine get their drinking water from a private well, so people might want to consider testing their water for PFAS, particularly if they live in an area where PFAS might have been used,” Mills said. “We don’t have any cure for PFAS in your blood right now, but you can reduce your exposure. I would be much more concerned about getting my well tested instead of my blood.”
MaineHealth’s NorDx Laboratories only conduct PFAS blood tests for research purposes, Mills said. They’re not yet available to patients.
Brewer-based Northern Light Health does not offer PFAS testing to its patients, according to system spokesperson Derek Hurder. He said the hospital network is “monitoring these new recommendations closely” but didn’t say whether Northern Light will begin offering PFAS testing to patients.
Penobscot Community Health Care, which runs clinics in the Bangor area, Belfast and Jackman, doesn’t yet have enough clinical guidance to launch a PFAS testing program for patients, spokesperson Kate Carlisle said.
The agency’s lab is awaiting more guidance on protocols and testing for PFAS from state officials.
And MaineGeneral Health, based in Augusta, conducts some PFAS testing, but the new report will not immediately change how the organization tests patients, according to spokesperson Joy McKenna. MaineGeneral will wait for health authorities to recommend changes, which could come as a result of the National Academies report released Thursday, she said.
The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Health and Environmental Testing Laboratory does not have the capability to test blood or other substances for PFAS, but the National Academies’ report will inform the state on whether to establish a PFAS blood testing program, spokesperson Jackie Farwell said.
The recently passed state budget includes funding for the Maine CDC’s labs to establish PFAS testing capacity in Maine, and the CDC is working to determine which substances will be tested to best protect Maine people’s health, Farwell said.
Those could include blood, fish and game, plants, dairy milk, or other agricultural products.
In the meantime, Farwell said Mainers should evaluate their personal risk factors for PFAS exposure and speak with their health care providers about the potential benefits and harms of blood testing.
The National Academies’ report recommends doctors work with patients found to have high levels of PFAS in their blood to reduce their exposure to the chemicals and prioritize screening for PFAS-related health problems.
The experts who wrote the report expect local testing capacity will increase as demand for it grows, said Marc-Andre Verner, a member of the National Academies’ Committee on PFAS Testing and Health Outcomes and a professor at the Universite de Montreal.
Until testing becomes widely available, however, Verner said the report shouldn’t instill fear in communities exposed to PFAS.
“I think it addressed fears already existing in communities that are aware of PFAS contamination,” Verner said. “Hopefully, these recommendations help alleviate these fears or help people get the testing they deserve in some areas.”