New federal PFAS advisory adds challenges to Maine’s costly PFAS cleanup -

2022-06-19 00:49:23 By : Ms. Penny Yang

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Water filtration systems that the state has been installing in Mainers' homes appear to be removing detectable levels of harmful forever chemicals, but no one knows if they achieve the much lower levels deemed safe by the EPA.

An aggressive new federal health advisory could complicate Maine’s effort to reduce the amount of forever chemicals in the water supply, making cleanup take longer and cost more.

But at least the state’s remediation campaign seems to be working, the state’s top environmental official said Friday.

The bottled water that Maine is giving to homeowners with contaminated wells and the water coming out of new state-installed home filtration systems have no detectable level of forever chemicals, said Commissioner Melanie Loyzim of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.

“There is still a lot more we need from (the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) to help us understand how the new findings fit into the big scheme of what we’re doing in Maine,” Loyzim said. “On the filtration front, we’ve been shooting for non-detects, and, so far, it is what we are achieving.”

But there is no way to know for sure if that bottled and filtered water is really safe for human consumption because the updated federal advisory issued this week warns that certain forever chemicals pose health risks at amounts too small to be detected by modern testing equipment.

Forever chemicals, or PFAS, are long-lasting chemicals with a unique ability to repel oil, grease and water. They can be found in industrial products like firefighting foam, and many common household items, like stain-resistant carpets or waterproof clothing.Advertisement

They have been linked to a wide range of health problems ranging from compromised cardiovascular and immune systems, infertility and low birth weight in babies, thyroid problems and certain kinds of cancer. They do not easily break down and build up in the body and ecosystem over time.

Currently, commercial labs can detect about two dozen different kinds of forever chemicals in amounts as low as 2 parts per trillion. The new federal advisory said two forever chemicals are dangerous to people in amounts as small as .004 and .02 parts per trillion.

“We’re getting the treatment systems working as well as they can, and they’re definitely reducing the health risks, but is it enough to eliminate risk?” Loyzim said. “We just don’t know yet. We can’t know yet because the technology to know doesn’t exist.”

A department spokesman didn’t respond to a request for information about how many PFAS filtration systems Maine has installed to date, or how much it has spent on bottled water. In January, Loyzim said PFAS testing and cleanup will probably cost Maine about $20 million a year.

Loyzim said it is too early to say if Maine will use the new federal advisory to push for a reduction in the state drinking water limit of 20 parts per trillion for a sum of six PFAS chemicals. That is a decision to be made by the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, she said.

It’s hard to predict how the advisory will change demand for PFAS testing, Loyzim said. Maine is already experiencing slow turnaround times. It relies on a single lab in Massachusetts to handle the bulk of its testing of hundreds of farms potentially contaminated by tainted fertilizer.Advertisement

“But there are a lot of other states that have been waiting on the feds to come out with guidance and this may drive up nationwide demand for the handful of labs that are capable of doing this kind of testing,” Loyzim said. “That’s why we’re trying to build in-state lab capacity.”

Increased demand for testing, filtration system, contractors and even raw filtration materials could drive up prices, but with a little help from the state, that increased demand could also drive existing labs to expand and new ones to open in Maine, Loyzim said.

Maine has set aside $3.2 million in grants for local companies willing to take on some of this testing and hopes it will encourage two to four labs to bid for a growing amount of state testing work. The state also set aside $1 million to develop its own government laboratory capacity.

“There’s a lot of research needed in this area, and research like this relies on testing,” Loyzim said.

Maine has begun an investigation into about 700 locations across the state where sludge, septic tank sewage and industrial waste was applied to farm fields as fertilizer. The investigation of these sites, and nearby wells, is likely to take about five years.

The problem is hitting Maine farmers hard. Dairy farmers have surrendered herds of milking cows to the state for euthanasia and crop farmers are pulling their vegetables from market shelves after tests revealed industrial levels of PFAS in the farm wells.

But the latest federal health advisory, with its evidence that even trace amounts of PFAS can harm consumers, suggests that some of Maine’s largest public water districts may have a forever chemical problem, too.

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