Jardin brings together expert panel to discuss ‘Forever Chemicals’

Experts from across the state came to the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens on Sept. 14 to discuss the complex group of chemicals known as PFAS. These “forever harmful chemicals” have been the focus of much research in Maine, but experts say the problem is a societal problem much larger than one state.

President Gretchen Oster said she wanted to host the event because tests revealed the presence of PFAS in the parks’ well water earlier this year. She said conditions are currently safe but she’s still not sure why, which is a common story.

“It made me realize that there is a lot we don’t know about PFAS, and there are people in the state working to learn more about it,” she said. “Maine is on the cutting edge.”

PFAS are synthetic chemicals used in everyday products including fabrics, detergents, firefighting foam, and food processing equipment. It was developed in the 1930s and was widely used in 1950, but is no longer produced in the United States, according to committee members. There are approximately 15,000 individual PFAS chemicals, according to the EPA.

The health risks of PFAS are not fully understood, but the EPA says scientific studies have shown that exposure may be linked to adverse health effects including reproductive problems, a higher risk of cancer and a weakened immune system. Experts on the committee explained that exposure to or detection of PFAS does not guarantee negative health effects.

Thomas Simons of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention is part of working with the state to set action levels for the amount of excess PFAS in foods like milk, beef and even backyard chicken eggs.

One of the biggest concerns is their persistence, which is why they’re called “forever chemicals,” he said. Because of their chemistry, the compounds do not break down easily, and can remain in the environment for a very long time. Simons and his colleagues are still working to understand how PFAS chemicals are transported.

“This is a unique class of chemicals that are very persistent, and they move in unique ways…,” Simons said.

According to experts on the panel, PFAS are everywhere in the environment, in our homes and our bodies; They have even been found in Antarctica. Commission member John Zegra, of the Boothbay Water District, said the Boothbay area is not immune, and there are PFAS in local water sources, but below current regulatory thresholds.

Sludge from waste systems is perhaps the most prominent source of PFAS. When homes use products containing PFAS, or humans expel them from our bodies, the chemicals reach our water and waste systems. Waste sludge has been used since the 1970s as a feature on farms to add nutrients to the soil, creating potential land and food contamination, according to panelist Mollie King of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection. The practice is banned in 2022, she said.

King is part of the state’s work to determine the extent of PFAS contamination in Maine, slow work that often involves digging through paper records and other historical files. She said the state has completed 110 site investigations in two years with a goal of investigating more than 1,000 sites. She added that 400 water sources have been affected so far and are undergoing mitigation.

“…(We are) trying to identify his whereabouts,” King said. “It sounds goofy, but that’s what we’re trying to do: figure out where PFAS are in the state so we can wrap our heads around it and figure out what to do with them.”

Scientists are also looking into how PFAS affect the ocean. Not only are PFAS stationary, they are mobile in waterways, said Christoph Epley of the Bigelow Laboratory. He talked about his research to find out the extent of PFAS in marine environments, the extent to which PFAS enters living organisms and how scientists can improve the tools used to detect it.

The discovery of PFAS does not mean the end of agriculture at that site, but it does require financial support, said Megan Hennessy of the Maine Department of Agriculture. She said the government’s $60 million PFAS fund helps provide support to farmers going through the process of remediating their land, including formulating mitigation strategies specific to their location and product.

However, the cost is not just financial. Most people have PFAS in their bodies, but some of the farmers he works with have some of the highest levels in the country, said Caleb Goosen of the Maine Organic Farmers and Farmers Association. Hennessy said it’s difficult to work with farmers who have high levels of PFAS and grow food that feeds their communities and families.

“I’m fortunate that we have the funding to support them in their business,” Hennessy said. “But I can’t fix what they’ve been through, the stress it’s putting on their families and the mental damage it’s causing them.”

However, Maine horticulturist Gary Fish urged people to be careful about assigning blame; PFAS have been widely used in such a diverse range of products that it is difficult to pinpoint the source.

“We demand certain products, and companies fill those voids. When they do that sometimes they make things that aren’t exactly what we want them to be.” We’re all part of the problem. Everyone here bears responsibility, not just the companies that make the products.”

The parks hosted the forum with Bigelow Oceanographic Laboratory and the Boothbay Area Clean Drinking Water Initiative.

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