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Despite deadline pressure, Maine lawmakers urged to press ahead on PFAS disclosure requirements

In this Thursday Aug. 15, 2019 photo, dairy cows rest outside the home of Fred and Laura Stone at Stoneridge Farm in Arundel, Maine. The farm has been forced to shut down after sludge spread on the land was linked to high levels of PFAS in the milk.
Robert F. Bukaty
In this Thursday Aug. 15, 2019 photo, dairy cows rest outside the home of Fred and Laura Stone at Stoneridge Farm in Arundel, Maine. The farm has been forced to shut down after sludge spread on the land was linked to high levels of PFAS in the milk.

State lawmakers continue to explore possible changes to a law that will eventually require all manufacturers to report whether products sold in Maine contain so-called "forever chemicals." While some businesses say the timeline is unrealistic, environmental health advocates say Maine should continue leading the way on regulation of PFAS.

Maine was the first state in the nation to pass a law requiring manufactures to report if a product contains PFAS as part of a longer-term goal of phasing out the chemicals in most products. But lawmakers were already forced to push back that initial reporting deadline. And with the new deadline just over a year away, there's still a robust debate about whether Maine should push ahead with its aggressive timeline — or wait for federal action.

"Maine is a leader, a national leader in PFAS regulation,” said Kyla Bennett, science policy director for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

Speaking on Monday to members of the Legislature's Environment and Natural Resources Committee, Bennett said that changes made several years ago have improved the federal regulation of chemicals. But she estimated that it would take more than 48,000 years, at the current pace, to review the current list of chemicals under the agency’s purview. And Bennett said the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is moving too slowly on PFAS for states like Maine to worry about their own laws being preempted.

"Given EPA's speed or lack thereof at regulating PFAS, I do think that the state should move ahead and ban PFAS in products and cross that bridge when we get there,” Bennett said.

PFAS, which is short for per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, are a class of chemicals that are used as coatings on everything from nonstick cookware and waterproof fabrics to microwave popcorn bags and firefighter gear. A growing body of scientific studies have linked some of the long-lasting chemicals to cancer, kidney disease, high cholesterol and other health problems.

Responding to a growing number of contamination hotspots around the state, Maine lawmakers have moved to regulate PFAS in sludge, in water — and in products. But many manufacturers said they likely won't be able to meet the new Jan. 2025 deadline to report which of their products contain PFAS. That's especially true for manufactures whose complex products made with thousands of parts sourced from around the globe.

"Most of our suppliers follow national or international regulations and not individual states. In fact, we have had quite a bit of pushback when we tried to point to the Maine statute,” said Diana Rondeau, director of global product compliance for IDEXX, the international veterinary diagnostics firm headquartered in Westbrook.

Rondeau said many suppliers don't want to divulge what they regard as trade secrets. So, after five years of effort, IDEXX has only been able to confirm PFAS use in 1% of the 14,000 parts it uses in products. As one example, she said a chemistry analyzer machine made in Maine contains roughly 12,000 parts, of which only 24 have been confirmed as containing PFAS. The rest, she told lawmakers, are largely unknown.

That prompted Rep. Dick Campbell, R-Orrington, to ask Rondeau how many of their suppliers have decided not to sell their products to IDEXX because of the Maine reporting requirements.

"In my experience, we don't have any yet, but it is a very real risk,” Rondeau said.

Rondeau said that if Maine plans to continue the reporting requirement, IDEXX would like to see “safe harbor language” added to Maine's law requiring companies to report what they know but allowing them to continue working with suppliers. The EPA’s current requirement, for instance, requires manufacturers to report what is “known or reasonably ascertainable,” she said.

But Linda Birnbaum, a leading PFAS researcher who formerly headed the federal government's National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, said PFAS are currently everywhere in products, in the environment and in human bodies. So Birnbaum, who currently has faculty positions at Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the only long-term solution is to stop making these chemicals. So she urged Maine and other states to stay the course.

"I think if the states can go ahead with the regulation of PFAS, that will help everyone in this country regardless of how slow EPA is to move on these topics,” Birnbaum said.

A group of stakeholders on PFAS issues – including representatives of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, IDEXX and the environmental health group Defend Our Health – are currently discussing potential compromise language that could be considered by lawmakers during next year’s legislative session.