Mainers over the age of 55 who rely on well water may soon be able to participate in a study to determine if there is a link between per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known as PFAS, in their groundwater and the health conditions they have.
Bar Harbor-based MDI Biological Laboratory and the University of New England’s Center for Excellence in Aging and Health are launching a Healthy Water/Healthy Aging citizen science initiative for older Mainers. To conduct the PFAS testing, they are partnering with Maine Laboratories, Maine’s first PFAS testing laboratory, in Norridgewock. The study is still being developed and has not yet started.
Maine has been described as leading the country in understanding and trying to prevent PFAS contamination, and this study could be the first of its kind in examining the association between PFAS exposure in older people and how they age, including the health conditions they develop, said Jane Disney, associate professor of environmental health at MDI Biological Laboratory.
“Older people have been exposed to PFAS chemicals through a period of their life, perhaps when no doctors were asking them these questions,” said Disney at the grand opening of Maine Laboratories in Norridgewock on Thursday.
“We’re very concerned about the exposure that young children have, but this study will allow us to look through the lifespan,” she said.
The study will gather data on 14 metals — such as arsenic, lead, uranium and manganese — and 28 specific types of PFAS in participants’ well water. One question the study hopes to explore is whether people are getting diseases linked to PFAS. Many diseases that come with age are also the same diseases that are associated with PFAS exposure, Disney said.
PFAS are a class of chemicals used to make products resistant to water, grease and heat, and they build up in bodies and the environment over time. Some studies have linked certain compounds to kidney cancer, testicular cancer, high cholesterol, decreased response to vaccines and other health problems.
Currently, the Healthy Water/Healthy Aging initiative has received funding from an Ellsworth-based nonprofit organization, Healthy Acadia, and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health for a total of 45 samples to be tested for PFAS at Maine Laboratories, Disney said.
She expects the scope of the study to grow as the initiative receives more funding.
“If you’ve been living in the same house, drinking well water for 30 or 40 years, and now you’re aging and experiencing more significant health problems than your neighbors, who may not be drinking well water, then this study will allow us to find out why that is,” said Tom Meuser, the director for the Center of Excellence in Aging and Health at the University of New England.
In the past, Disney has also led a similar citizen-science initiative at MDI Biological Laboratory, called All About Arsenic, to test for arsenic and other contaminants in soil, water and crops in Maine and New Hampshire. The initiative engaged children and schools to collect the samples and build data literacy.
As a partner, Maine Laboratories will provide the PFAS testing kits with instructions to allow people to collect the samples themselves and then ship them to the Norridgewock location to be tested for the chemicals, said Katie Richards, who founded the lab with her husband, Chris Richards.
“This is a huge problem in Maine, and PFAS tests, at $285 to $400, are expensive for those in rural communities,” said Chris Richards, who is also a chemistry professor at the University of Kentucky. “We are providing discounted testing for this initiative.”
Those who participate in the study will submit a survey to self-report details about their health conditions, aging and overall well-being. The first group to participate will be the older Mainers who have already participated in the All About Arsenic initiative, Disney said.
The Healthy Water/Healthy Aging initiative is also working with the Maine Senior College Network and the American Association of Retired Persons in Maine to raise awareness about exposure to PFAS and health conditions among older Mainers, and to invite them to participate in the study.