The Surry Elementary School sits just across the street from the small Hancock County community's town office. The town has recently partnered with the Shaw Institute in order to find out why the school's drinking water tested for high levels of PFAS. Credit: Ethan Genter / BDN

When the Surry Elementary School learned it had dangerously high levels of hazardous chemicals in its drinking water, it did what most schools do: handed out bottled water and looked for a filtration system.

But the small Hancock County town, nestled between Ellsworth and Blue Hill, decided that such measures weren’t enough. This fall, Surry teamed up with a globally recognized research institute to discover what’s causing the school’s high levels of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, a range of human-made chemicals that have plagued Maine in recent years.

Late last month, the Shaw Institute tested water samples in areas around the school, including in the neighboring town office and in multiple streams. It also has plans to test nearby soil and private wells in an attempt to pinpoint how the school’s drinking water was contaminated with the chemicals, commonly referred to as PFAS.

This type of digging goes beyond state requirements. Maine requires public water systems and schools to have their water tested. Systems that have PFAS at more than 20 parts per trillion need to reduce the level. Many have chosen to install filters, but they aren’t required to root out the cause.

Surry undertook this work because town officials have prioritized the community’s water quality. The institute’s partnership with a testing lab made the effort relatively cheap. Each sample cost about $100 a pop.

“There was enough concern in the community,” said Eric Treworgy, the chair of the Select Board. “It makes sense to try and dig a little deeper to find where this is coming from.”

The town was first approached by the institute, which pioneered microplastic research in Maine, when news of the school’s tests came out in October. The 146-student pre-K through grade eight school had between 30 and 40 parts per trillion. It is still working on getting a filtration system in place.

“I was concerned because I live in Surry, and I have two kids in the school,” said Michelle Berger, an associate scientist at the Shaw Institute who has spearheaded the research. “We want to figure out how far the contamination has spread.”

There are no clear causes of the high levels in Surry, though. The fire station next door doesn’t use the foams, and there are no other obvious contamination sources, such as a military base or airport.

So far, the institute’s additional tests confirmed the high levels at the school, but found the town office across the street had low levels of about 1 parts per trillion, according to a report released earlier in November. Three tests in different parts of Patten Stream, which runs near the school and four nearby home wells, had little to no reportable levels of PFAS.

That likely means that the problem is connected to something near the school, according to Berger.

The institute is currently drawing up plans to test more homes along the school’s road in order to see if contamination has spread to wells in that area. Berger said there have been anecdotes of sludge or fill being used when the school was built, prompting the proposed soil testing.

While the ongoing tests haven’t found a culprit, it’s also found other potentially contaminated areas.  

A stream behind the town office along the Osgood walking trail was found to have almost 28 parts per trillion of seven different PFAS compounds, an issue that is likely separate from the school.

If this type of detective work can find out different causes, it may be worth using this blueprint in other communities, according to Berger.

“If you have a success in one place, that can spur interest in others,” she said.