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Hunters: Don't eat deer harvested in Fairfield or 5 neighboring communities

In this Aug. 24, 2018 file photo, a male deer peaks out from behind brush near Bar Harbor, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
AP file
In this Aug. 24, 2018 file photo, a male deer peaks out from behind brush near Bar Harbor, Maine.

A state advisory against eating the meat of deer killed in six central Maine towns has jolted maine's hunting community. The announcement, just two days before Thanksgiving, is the latest troubling development involving "forever chemicals" that have been linked to health problems.

The discovery of contaminated deer near Fairfield is also raising broader concerns as the state expands an investigation into PFAS contamination at hundreds of sites around Maine.

David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, said his phone has been ringing off the hook since the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife issued the advisory on Tuesday evening. Trahan said most calls to the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine – the state’s largest organization for hunters, fishermen and other sportsmen – were asking a single question:

"Well, they want to know if there are other areas of the state where this is a problem,” Trahan said on Wednesday. “I can't answer that. I don't have an answer for them."

In an email sent to hunters Tuesday evening, DIF&W announced a "do not eat" recommendation for deer killed in Fairfield as well as parts of five surrounding towns: Waterville, Oakland, Skowhegan, Norridgewock and Smithfield.

Fairfield is the hottest hotspot in Maine for the highly persistent "forever chemicals" known as PFAS. Short for per- or polyfluoroalkyl substances, PFAS have been used for decades in nonstick cookware, grease-resistant food packaging and countless other products. But some varieties of the chemical have been linked to serious health issues. And the Maine Department of Environmental Protection is embarking on four or five-year campaign to test hundreds of sites beyond the Fairfield area where sludge or paper mill waste that may have contained PFAS was used as fertilizer.

For Trahan, the "do not eat" advisory is a siren call that those investigations must happen faster – for hunters or anyone else in Maine who lives off the land .

"By also saying that we are going to identify 500 sites and test them, the human mind takes you to the next step which is how many of these sites are out there?” Trahan said. “You can't leave that question out there unanswered for four to five years. You can't undo this siren. It is now out there and is spreading all over the state."

The department tested several samples of deer meat in the Fairfield area after hearing from concerned hunters. Some of the highest levels of PFAS in Maine have been found in soils and drinking wells near farmfields that were fertilized with sludge or papermill waste. And at least one dairy farm has been shut down as a result of the contamination.

Eight samples came back with PFAS levels that were higher than what toxicologists at the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention said were safe to consume. As a result, Maine has joined just a handful of states -- Michigan, Wisconsin and New Hampshire -- that have advised against eating either meat or liver from deer harvested near known PFAS hotspots.

"I don't think it was necessarily a hard decision to make. It was hard data to see,” said Judy Camuso, commissioner of the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. “But once we saw the levels, there was no question that we needed to issue the advisory."

Camuso said the do-not-eat zone extends roughly five miles from the areas of Fairfield with the highest contamination out of an abundance of caution. But tests on deer several miles from the central area reveal much lower levels so she's hopeful the zone can be narrowed with additional testing.

"I know it's frustrating for people but we just don't know,” Camuso said. “We issued the do-not-eat advisory recognizing that we don't know all of the answers but that that was the safe thing for human health to do."

Biologists are gearing up to test deer and possibly other game species as the Maine Department of Environmental Protection expands its PFAS investigations to the more than 500 other sites considered to be at higher risk.

"I'm hopeful that this is just a hotspot, if you will, and that most of the rest of the testing that we'll do will not be as alarming, or alarming at all, will be totally healthy deer,” Camuso said.

Trahan, a former lawmaker from the Waldoboro area, said he appreciates that the administration of Gov. Janet Mills and the Legislature made PFAS a high priority during the last legislative session. Lawmakers earmarked $25 million for testing, cleanup and installation of water filters. But Trahan noted that the state has just learned of an anticipated $800 million revenue surplus and says some of that could be used to speed up investigations.

"Once this sinks in, a lot of people are going to be scared – and rightly so,” Trahan said. “This is the part where state leadership really needs to step in and get this one right."