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Health

Maine Lawmakers Pass Package Of Bills To Address ‘Forever Chemical’ Threat

Fred Stone
Robert F. Bukaty
/
AP
In this Thursday Aug. 15, 2019 photo, dairy farmer Fred Stone pauses while working in the milking room at his farm in Arundel, Maine. Fred Stone and his wife Laura, whose dairy farm is contaminated by toxic chemicals known collectively as PFAS, so-called "forever chemicals," have high PFAS levels in their blood.

Few issues unified Maine lawmakers more this year than the toxic class of chemicals known as PFAS, which have been detected at dangerous levels in some of the state’s dairy farms and drinking water supplies.

The Legislature has passed a number of bills over the last few months to address the threat of so-called “forever chemicals,” which can take hundreds of years to break down and have been linked to health problems including cancer, low infant birth weights and compromised immune systems.

The new legislation includes stricter PFAS pollution standards, regulation of their use, and a provision making it easier for affected Mainers to sue polluters. Gov. Janet Mills has so far signed at least four of those bills, and her budget also provides more than $20 million for the agencies responding to the problem.

PFAS -- which stands for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances -- are used in many consumer and industrial products, including firefighting foam, nonstick coating and food packaging. They can get into the environment in a number of ways, including the use of wastewater sludge that’s applied to agricultural fields as fertilizer.

In Maine, dangerous PFAS levels have been detected at numerous sites over the last few years, including dairy farms in the towns of Arundel and Fairfield, and in dozens of private drinking wells in the Fairfield area.

“We’ve seen truly in the last couple years how bad of a problem PFAS contamination can be, and I’m very glad that our legislators have responded to that in a forceful way to both get to some of the sources of the problem and also to begin to address the cleanup and remediation of the problem,” says Patrick MacRoy, deputy director of the Maine-based organization Defend Our Health, which has pushed to devote more resources to PFAS remediation

One of the most consequential new bills, LD 129, lowers the level of PFAS contamination that the state considers safe for drinking water to 20 parts per trillion -- one of the nation’s lowest limits and down from a federal advisory level of 70 parts per trillion that the state had previously used.

The state has been paying to install water filtration systems at homes found to have unsafe levels of contamination, and under the new stricter standards, 55 additional homes became newly eligible for the assistance because their water had previously been shown to have between 20 and 70 parts per trillion of the chemicals, according to the Maine Department of Environmental Protection. In total, 164 homes have now qualified for free filtration systems.

“That had a very immediate impact on folks in the Fairfield area,” says MacRoy, who credited Maine DEP with going back through the old test results and contacting those families.

In addition, LD 129 will require public institutions to conduct ongoing testing of their water supplies for PFAS chemicals and remediate them if they are found above the safe limit.

Other bills that have received Mills’ signature will ban the aerial application of PFAS chemicals; extend the statute of limitations for lawsuits involving PFAS pollution to six years after the pollution is discovered, rather than six years after it first occurred; and direct Maine’s agriculture department to research crops that can be safely be grown on contaminated farms.

Some of the other biggest bills are still waiting for the governor’s signature. One of them, LD 1600, would require the state to systematically test for PFAS pollution in all sites where municipal and industrial wastewater sludge has historically been applied, so that those areas can be remediated.

Another unsigned bill would restrict how often firefighting foam that contains PFAS can be used in Maine.

A third measure, LD 1503, would go even further to reduce the use of PFAS in Maine, by first requiring manufacturers to report when they are used, and then phasing them out entirely by 2030, except in cases where companies can demonstrate there are no alternatives.

Dr. Lani Graham, a former chief public health officer for Maine who was part of a state task force on PFAS and is involved with multiple advocacy organizations, called LD 1503 in some ways “the most important of all the PFAS bills that we passed.”

“Turning off the tap, stopping the distribution of these chemicals into the Maine environment is critical,” she says. “You can pass a maximum contaminant level, but if you keep pumping chemicals into the environment, it's not going to mean a lot.”

Both Graham and MacRoy praised the state’s sweeping efforts to address PFAS contamination and try to prevent it in the future, but they said that more of the responsibility for funding those efforts should fall to the companies that have produced the contamination despite knowing the health risks of the chemicals. Besides the families who have lost access to their drinking water, they noted that some farmers have already lost their livelihoods after contamination was found in their fields and livestock.

There is still relatively little research on the health risks from forever chemicals, but more is likely to emerge, just as it has for more well-known dangers such as lead and asbestos, according to Graham,

“Here are these Maine children, kids being exposed to high levels of contaminants, and we have no idea what the future of that is,” she says. “I think what we’re seeing is just the tip of the iceberg.”