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State Urged To Prevent Exposure To Harmful Chemicals Found In Sewage Sludge

Patty Wight
Maine Public
Arundel farmer Fred Stone, who says his cows were contaminated with PFAS chemicals.

Two weeks after Gov. Janet Mills signed an executive order to study the prevalence of a family of chemicals that pose potential public health risks, environment and health advocates are urging her to do more. They staged their call to action Tuesday at a dairy farm in Arundel, where contamination from the chemicals known as PFAS was discovered two years ago.

Frank Stone's family has farmed on the same land in Arundel for more than 100 years. It started with his grandfather, and now Stone and his wife run the Stoneridge dairy farm.

"These cows are our life. It's all we've ever done. It's all we've ever known. It's all we've ever wanted to do," Stone says.

But for the past two years, Stone says, his life has been a nightmare. In November of 2016, he says, he got a letter from the Kennebunk and Wells Water Districts. They tested his well water and found high levels of chemicals known as PFAS. The man-made chemicals have been used for decades in a variety of products, from clothing and cookware, to paper and packaging. Stone says an investigation by Maine's Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) found that the source of the PFAS contamination was in treated industrial and wastewater sludge he had spread on his fields for years.

"Beginning in 1980, the towns and the state told us, or told Maine farmers, that spreading sludge on our fields was the right thing to do,” he says.

But his cows ate the feed he grew in his fields and drank the water. So when Stone tested his dairy milk, that was contaminated too. He bought cows and feed from out of state and invested in a $20,000 filtration system, which helped for awhile. But in January, PFAS levels started to tick up again, and Stone says he hasn't been able to sell milk since. He estimates his losses at more than $400 a day.

"I want the state of Maine to make sure that no other farming family has to go through what's happened to us," he says.

Patrick MacRoy of the Environmental Health Strategy Center says sludge spreading was — and still is — common practice.

"All of the evidence suggests that this is but the tip of a toxic iceberg," he says.

And he says the state of Maine is ignoring the potential public health implications.

"Despite strong indications that what happened here is not unique, the state has yet to conduct even the most basic examination of other farms," he says.

The Strategy Center wants the Mills’ administration to take prompt action in three ways: halt the use of sludge spreading, identify and test all potentially impacted farms, and prohibit the use of PFAS in consumer products.

PFAS chemicals have been linked to cancer and other health problems. Becca Boulos of the Maine Public Health Association says those include damage to reproductive health and developmental delays. The consequences, she says, can persist even after exposure stops.

"PFAS don't break down, and they can accumulate over time," Boulos says.

And not just in the human body, says research scientist Dr. Laurel Shaider of the Silent Spring Institute, but also in the environment.

"Which means that pollution from old legacy sources will continue to be sources of PFAS exposure into the future. And with over 4700 chemicals and polymers in this family of forever chemicals, we don't have a full understanding of the extent of contamination and associated risk," Shaider says.

Which is why, Shaider says, stronger policies are needed to protect public health and the environment.

A spokesperson for Maine's Department of Environmental Protection says in a written response that the DEP shares the concerns raised and is actively considering its regulatory options to ensure the safety of any sludge spread in the state.

Mills also signed an executive order earlier this month to establish a task force to study the prevalence of PFAS in Maine and create a plan to address it.

The pressure to take action is mounting. The Conservation Law Foundation recently petitioned all New England states to establish drinking water standards for PFAS. In a written response, Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew says further study is needed, which the task force will undertake.

Updated 5:12 p.m. March 19, 2019.