The BDN Opinion section operates independently and does not set news policies or contribute to reporting or editing articles elsewhere in the newspaper or on bangordailynews.com.
Michael Haedicke is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Maine and a faculty fellow at the Senator George J. Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions. Jean MacRae is an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Maine and a Mitchell Center faculty fellow. This column reflects their views and expertise and does not speak on behalf of the University of Maine or the Mitchell Center. Haedicke is a member of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.
The famous environmental writer Rachel Carson would have turned 116 years old last week. Carson is best known for her 1962 book “Silent Spring,” which fearlessly defended people’s right to know about the dangers of chemical pollution from synthetic pesticides.
Although the risks of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, were not widely understood during Carson’s lifetime, her convictions still resonate in Maine today.
Thousands of synthetic compounds are included within the PFAS category. Some of these compounds have been widely used in industry and consumer products since the middle of the 20th century.
We now know that chronic exposure to PFAS is linked to a range of health risks, from elevated cholesterol to certain forms of cancer. PFAS are also known as “forever chemicals” because when they enter soil or water, they persist over time and are difficult to remove. Environmental contamination ends up affecting people through the foods we eat and the water we drink.
In 2021, the Maine Legislature passed a first-in-the-nation requirement to create a registry of products with added PFAS that are sold in the state. This registry could enable Mainers to know whether items on their shopping lists or in their homes have been treated with forever chemicals.
It would also lay essential groundwork for Maine’s plan to phase out the sale of all products containing added PFAS by 2030.
Manufacturers were supposed to submit information for the registry by Jan. 1, 2023. But the rulemaking process has been slow, and many businesses were granted six-month extensions by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.
The end of this extension period is coming up quickly. It is essential for manufacturers to supply the required information and for the environmental department to complete the product registry without additional delays.
This task isn’t easy. Forever chemicals are in products that range from cosmetics and cookware to rugs and raincoats. Product supply chains are complicated and suppliers may not be forthcoming or reply promptly to manufacturers’ requests. State environmental regulators are already busy working on many aspects of the PFAS crisis, including investigating potentially contaminated land sites and drinking water systems.
But in the spirit of the right to know, people need this information.
It’s true that participating in the registry adds to the cost of doing business in Maine. But now, the public at large is bearing costs related to PFAS contamination.
Consider that cities and towns in Maine must now pay extra to landfill sewage sludge, which can no longer be composted or used as fertilizer because of potential PFAS contamination washed from clothes and bodies and from various household products. Some communities are even paying to truck sludge to New Brunswick because of difficulties accommodating this extra material at the state-owned Juniper Ridge landfill.
Moreover, sequestering sludge is like cleaning up water from an overflowing bathtub — you can’t solve the problem unless you turn off the tap. In the context of PFAS, turning off the tap means removing the compounds from the waste stream to the greatest extent possible so we stop contaminating our bodies and our environment.
There’s no way around the fact that phasing out the sale of products with added PFAS will change the way business is done in Maine. This change is necessary, though. If we cannot turn off the tap, the economic costs and health problems associated with forever chemicals will continue to rise.
Carson believed that only public knowledge and attention to chemical pollution could guarantee environmental policies that protect the public at large. This is the spirit that guides Maine’s approach to the PFAS crisis. Registering products with added forever chemicals is an important part of this effort.
But the problem is far from solved. Maine is a national leader in efforts to “turn off the tap” — but to stay in this position, it must quickly move forward to identify and restrict products with added PFAS.