Maine bottled water companies have been asked to test for PFAS, but they aren't required to under state law.
In this Aug. 24, 2022, file photo, Bill Cunningham sets a bottle of water on top of his dispenser at his home in Pittsfield. Cunningham has been drinking bottled water for about 18 years and is now wondering if forever chemicals are in it. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Poland Spring, a top-selling national brand of bottled water, detected toxic “forever chemicals” in its spring in Fryeburg, according to state data obtained by the Bangor Daily News.

The company, owned by BlueTriton Brands Inc., based in Stamford, Connecticut, detected per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, in its groundwater source in the western Maine town at 4.6 parts per trillion, according to the results it voluntarily submitted to the Maine Drinking Water Program.

Poland Spring said that, while the spring water has PFAS, it has not detected the chemicals in its bottled water because the company is filtering the water it sells. It declined to provide the test results of its bottled water to the BDN.

Under a new law, community drinking water systems are required to test their water supplies for the chemicals, but water bottling companies are not. So the state asked water bottlers to test voluntarily.

By August, only three out of 11 Maine water bottlers had tested for PFAS and submitted their results to the state.

As of Jan. 19, most still had not tested their water sources, setting up a potential debate in the Maine Legislature over whether the companies should be transparent about whether their water contains the chemicals.

PFAS are manmade chemicals found in household and industrial products, and they are difficult to destroy and have been linked to serious illnesses.

Of 11 water bottling companies in Maine, only five have tested their water for PFAS, according to the most recent data from the state’s drinking water program. One of the water bottlers had tested just one of its two springs.

Of the five that tested, two companies discovered PFAS in their water sources.

The two results meet the state’s interim, enforceable standard of 20 parts per trillion for drinking water.

But the state standard is far higher than advisory levels for some PFAS compounds set by the federal government. Final rules are not yet set, but federal regulators are expected to propose a standard soon.

Some Mainers and legislators believe that water bottling companies should be testing for the chemicals. The Legislature will consider bills this session to put the requirement into law.

Poland Spring has 10 spring sites across Maine. Data submitted to the state show that all 10 sites were tested between January and mid-February 2022, but only nine test results — all showing no detectable levels of PFAS — were submitted to the state by August.

In a statement, the company said it did not get its test results back from an external laboratory for its Fryeburg spring until October, nine months after it sampled the water there.

Fryeburg discovered PFAS in its town water, in June, at about 33 parts per trillion, one of the highest levels found in a drinking water system serving a municipality in Maine. It fixed the problem by installing ion-exchange treatment technology by the end of September — before Poland Spring said it even got its results back.

The company and the town extract water from two different wells, according to a Poland Spring spokesperson. But the source of the groundwater, an aquifer, is the same.

The company was not aware of PFAS in its water before the results came back in October 2022, it said in a statement. It submitted the results to the Maine Drinking Water Program within a week of receiving them.

Poland Spring’s final product, the bottled water, does not contain PFAS because it filters the chemicals out through a granulated activated carbon system, according to the company’s statement. For this reason, it continues to bottle and sell water from its Fryeburg site.

Poland Spring has “for many years used standard filtration of its water before bottling that removes any potential PFAS compounds that may be present,” according to the statement.

The company also has a professional team that tests its bottled water for PFAS monthly to ensure it’s providing a high-quality product, the statement said.

Poland Spring declined to provide those monthly PFAS test results, saying that the information is proprietary.

The company plans to test the spring source again this year.

Every company abides by different protocols. Poland Spring follows standards set by the International Bottled Water Association that restrict PFAS in drinking water to 10 parts per trillion, half of Maine’s standard.

Glenrock Spring in Greene, the first company that detected PFAS in its water, found 7.53 parts per trillion of the toxic chemicals in its water after testing last May, according to the results last submitted to the state.

At the time the company did not notify its customers, because the levels fell below state parameters, and it was working to remove the PFAS, John Vallerand, the company’s president, said. Glenrock Spring supports requiring water bottlers to test for PFAS. Vallerand could not be reached for comment on the measures he has taken since August.  

The seven companies that have not submitted any PFAS test results are: Acadian Spring, Carrabassett Spring Water, HP Hood, Maine Mist Bottling Co., Maine Springs’ Winterbrook bottling site, Mount Desert Spring Water and Oak Grove Spring Water.

The BDN tried to reach all these companies and heard back from HP Hood in Portland. It declined to comment on whether it will test for PFAS and submit its results.

One of the companies, Brewer-based Oak Grove Spring Water, emailed Bill Cunningham, a customer living in Pittsfield, after the BDN’s previous reporting to tell him that the company is testing for PFAS. However, the latest state-collected data do not show any results from the company.

“I’m disappointed,” Cunningham said.

Cunningham had used bottled water as more sites with PFAS were found across Maine, but now he is considering going back to town water, especially since there is no clarity on PFAS results from Oak Grove Spring Water. The town of Pittsfield recently tested its water and found no detectable levels of PFAS.

The BDN called Oak Grove Spring Water three times over a week, but could not reach the owner for clarification on whether the company was actually testing and whether it will submit its results.

Mount Desert Spring Water, based in Southwest Harbor, had planned to test for PFAS by now. But the company wanted to complete a more extensive mega test, which laboratories could not accommodate toward the end of the year, said Dawn Evangelista, the office manager.

The company is hoping to test for PFAS in the spring and submit those results to the state.

“I think we should be required to test for PFAS, especially if we’re bottling from water sources in the state,” Evangelista said. “People shouldn’t be paying for water with PFAS in it.”

Mehr Sher is a Report for America corps member. Additional support for this reporting is provided by the Unity Foundation and donations by BDN readers.

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Mehr Sher

Mehr Sher reports on the Maine environment. She is a Report for America corps member. Additional support for her reporting is provided by the Unity Foundation and donations by BDN readers.