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Bill Would Give Mainers More Legal Options Against Manufacturers Of 'Forever Chemicals'

Patty Wight
Maine Public file

Advocates are urging state lawmakers to hold manufacturers of so-called “forever chemicals” accountable.

Last week, the state announced that high amounts of chemicals known as PFAS were detected in milk from a central Maine dairy farm. It’s the second farm in the state known to have excessive contamination from PFAS, which have been widely used in consumer products. A proposed bill before the Legislature’s Judiciary committee would give Mainers harmed by the chemicals more legal recourse.

The milk from the central Maine dairy farm had PFAS levels well above the allowable threshold. In an online press conference, Patrick MacRoy, deputy director of the Environmental Health Strategy Center, says they were 70 times the limit.

“These numbers are quite literally off the charts,” he says.

The farm where the contaminated milk came from has not been identified. But the Maine Department of Agriculture says in a news release that the farm is no longer producing milk. It has also had to suspend beef sales until those products can be tested.

As the state investigates the source of the PFAS contamination, MacRoy says there’s a likely culprit: treated wastewater sludge. For years, farms across the state have spread this sludge as fertilizer. But a few years ago, another farm in Arundel also had to stop producing milk because it was tainted with PFAS. The source was the sludge.

MacRoy says even though certain PFAS chemicals haven’t been manufactured in the U.S. for decades, they accumulate in the environment over time.

“It’s incredibly unlikely that this was a recent contamination that caused the spike. Chances are this is a historic pollution that is occurring at this farm that we are just now picking up,” he says.

But the ability of farmers and others to seek legal recourse is limited, says state Democratic state Rep. Henry Ingwersen. Under current law, they have to file a lawsuit within six years of when the pollution occurs. Ingwersen has submitted a bill that would change the requirement to within six years of when the pollution is discovered.

“PFAS contamination due to land spreading, landfill leachate, firefighting foam may have occurred for years and decades before any affected individual became aware of the contamination, and even aware of the harm or even the existence of these PFAS chemicals,” he says.

PFAS is a family of synthetic chemicals that have been used in consumer products ranging from nonstick cookware and takeout food containers to carpeting. Though certain PFAS can’t be manufactured in the US, they can be produced internationally.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says that PFAS persist in the environment and in the body. Dr. Lani Graham, a family physician and former director of the Maine Center for Disease Control, says they can affect the immune system and have been linked to other health problems, including cancer.

“Against this backdrop, we must acknowledge that the extent of PFAS contamination in Maine remains largely unknown,” she says.

Graham, who is also a member of Gov, Janet Mills’ PFAS Task Force, says that’s why a majority of the task force’s members support changing state law.

The Judiciary Committee is holding a public hearing on the bill Tuesday. Supporters say 37 other states have similar laws.