Editor’s note: Join the Bangor Daily News and Maine Farmland Trust at 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 15, for another panel discussion about current and future efforts to address the effects of PFAS contamination. Register here or at bangordailynews.com/bdn-events/

Three experts discussed what is known about PFAS and why the chemicals matter as part of a forum on Tuesday organized by the Bangor Daily News and Maine Farmland Trust.

Meagan Hennessey, the director of PFAS response at the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry; Jean MacRae, an environmental microbiologist and environmental engineering faculty member at the University of Maine; and Dr. Noah Nesin, the primary care innovation adviser at Penobscot Community Health Care, answered questions from the public and shared resources relating to testing of water and blood, and support for farmers.

From left, Jean MacRae, an environmental microbiologist and environmental engineering faculty member at the University of Maine; Dr. Noah Nesin, the primary care innovation adviser at Penobscot Community Health Care; and Meagan Hennessey, the director of PFAS response at the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. Credit: Courtesy of University of Maine; Gabor Degre, BDN; Courtesy of Meagan Hennessey

They talked about the history of Maine’s response to the discovery of the chemicals in water, soil, animals and farm products; the changing guidance around what levels of PFAS are acceptable in drinking water; why it’s difficult to get the chemicals out of community water systems; what researchers know and don’t know about the risks to health; how to mitigate the presence of the chemicals in soil and farm products; and when people should test their blood for PFAS.

For instance, MacRae recommended that homeowners only install water filters certified to work on PFAS by the National Sanitation Foundation. She also discussed the emergence of a new, cheaper test for PFAS in water made by the Illinois company Cyclopure.

For those who want to know whether their water might be contaminated, they can review a Maine Department of Environmental Protection map where sludge potentially containing PFAS was spread. They can also review a different map that shows where the chemicals have been found so far.

PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a group of thousands of manmade chemicals that do not naturally break down in the environment due to their extremely stable chemical bonds. As a result they accumulate in the environment, food chain and people’s bodies. For many years in Maine, contaminated sludge from wastewater treatment plants was spread on farm fields, and the chemicals found their way into private wells. The state’s investigation to locate places with contamination is ongoing.

The chemicals can also be found in firefighting foam, food packaging, coated paper products and cookware, and they have been linked to a number of health problems, such as a decreased response to vaccines and kidney cancer.

read more ABOUT PFAS

Watch the full event here. Below, read about how the panelists answered some questions from the public:

How should homeowners order a test kit and evaluate the accuracy of the types of tests out there, and are labs able to process the tests? 

Jean MacRae: “It is difficult to get testing at an accredited lab. The majority if not all the capacity is being taken up by DEP’s requirement to test all of the places where sludge has been applied and then do additional testing to find where any contamination has spread from the areas where those materials were applied to land. …

“The downside of using a novel technology is it’s not very well tested, so the reliability of the results would maybe be a little bit questionable. I think if you’re using it as a screening I would maybe think about it because it’s on the order of $100 as opposed to $600. If you were really concerned, and you didn’t meet the bar of DEP’s testing, where they would buy your test for you, you could think about using that. …

“It sounds like the detection method is quite similar to the certified testing method. It’s likely going to turn out to be useful, and maybe it will be a game changer in making it easier for people to test their water.”

What happens now with sludge from wastewater treatment facilities? Additionally some schools have high PFAS results. Should we assume nearby properties are susceptible or the cause? 

Jean MacRae: “Almost all of the sludge now is going to landfill, most of that at Juniper Ridge, just north of here. That’s not an ideal solution for sludge. It’s not a particularly good thing to go into a landfill. It’s too wet, and it has too much organic matter, so it makes a lot of methane. But that’s the option that we have right now.

“As far as schools having PFAS contamination, if a school is downgradient of a place where PFAS was applied or some place where in the past there had been firefighting training, that could result in it. There are also some materials that have been turned into playing fields that may have some form of contamination. It’s really difficult to say unless you know more about an individual site.”

Given that economically underclass farmers will inevitably see a great impact from PFAS at this stage, what is being done to ensure that research and solutions are directed specifically toward historically marginalized and disproportionately affected communities?

Meagan Hennessey: “It’s a great question and one that actually came up today. I’m participating on the diversity, equity and inclusion program that the Bureau of Agriculture, Food and Rural Resources is doing as a full bureau. It’s definitely a question that is out on our minds. I don’t have a lot of answers about the solutions to that right now, but I would say it is something that has come up. As we’ve been learning a lot and adding farms, honestly it has been a bit of a scramble to work with each of these farms. Each conversation is pretty nuanced. We’ve been pretty focused on some of the day-to-day operations and needs, but some of those big-picture questions are incredibly important.”

Should everyone be checking their water and deer meat for PFAS? What does current science say about bioaccumulations of PFAS in the food chain, especially concentrations in fish, and how should that inform decisions about what we eat?

Noah Nesin: “If you consume fish or animals who are in potentially contaminated areas, that’s one of the reasons to consider personal testing of blood levels for PFAS. The contaminated areas are the same obviously as for humans: near military bases or air fields, or industries that use these chemicals, or wastewater treatment plants, or in a community where it’s already been determined that there are high levels — for instance in the water supply, if that water supply is where the fish are that you’re consuming. Those are the personal considerations.”

Jean MacRae: “I think there needs to be a reason to believe that the animal that you’re consuming has been in a contaminated area. Similarly people shouldn’t panic about their drinking water unless they know that there’s contamination near where their aquifer is. By and large, Maine is not contaminated that broadly. There are plenty of contaminated sites and some places with very high levels, and that’s why the DEP is really focusing their efforts on testing in those areas and reaching out to people who may have contamination. But they’re not going to catch every instance, probably. They’re looking at the high-likelihood areas. So if you’re really concerned about it, you could test your drinking water. Similarly with food, there are maps available through the EGAD website where you can actually look at places where there have been hotspots and then maybe think about not fishing in those areas.”

Is there a financial support fund for Maine farmers affected by PFAs contamination?

Meagan Hennessey: “There are several different types of support we can offer — income replacement and infrastructure support (for things like equipment investment or clean feed) primarily among them. You can see information on these and other funds on our website.”

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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...