Editor’s Note: The following story first appeared in The Maine Monitor’s free environmental newsletter, Climate Monitor, that is delivered to inboxes for free every Friday morning. Sign up for the free newsletter to get more important environmental news from reporter Kate Cough by registering here.
If there’s one header in the “In Other Maine News” section of this newsletter that I never have to change, it’s PFAS. State agencies began testing for PFAS in fish near former military bases as far back as 2013, and the “forever chemicals” started appearing regularly in the news in Maine about four years later, after being found in high concentrations at the former Brunswick Naval Air Station. The news has been steady on about them ever since.
Data released last week by the Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention found high levels of the sum of six different regulated types of PFAS in 18 public water systems around the state, including in five grade schools (one of which is a daycare) and two colleges, as well as a retirement community and an affordable housing complex.
The data release was the result of a law passed in the spring of 2021 requiring most public water systems, including schools and child care facilities, to test their drinking water for PFAS by the end of this year. Roughly half of Mainers are served by community water systems. Private wells and transient public water systems, such as those serving restaurants, camps, campgrounds, hotels and golf courses, were not required to test under this law.
If levels are found to be above 20 parts per trillion (for six types of PFAS, alone or in combination), Maine’s interim drinking water standard requires a community to take action — either installing a filtration system or some kind of other mitigation method.
All of the communities with levels above 20 parts per trillion are listed in the state data as having made moves to resolve the situation, and have either already installed a treatment system (in the case of the daycare, Home Inc. & Learning Center in Orland) or are pursuing some kind of treatment option. The district superintendent of Mount Desert Island High School, which had levels four times higher than the state’s action level, told the Bangor Daily News the school had been using bottled water for cooking and drinking since the end of the school year.
(If you want to play around with it yourself, The Monitor has converted the data to a spreadsheet. The highlighted water systems are those with confirmed levels above 20 parts per trillion as of July 5, 2022.)
Maine has some of the strictest regulations for PFAS in drinking water in the country, and it’s likely more are coming. A health advisory issued last month by the Environmental Protection Agency for two of the chemicals — PFOA and PFOS — effectively found that any level in drinking water could have potential negative health effects over a lifetime of exposure. In light of this new guidance, some advocates have argued that even the state’s 20 parts per trillion level may be too high, and at least one Maine official has indicated that the state may be rethinking safety levels for certain food products.
Health advisories are just that — advisories — and aren’t enforceable, but they still matter, since many states look to the EPA when setting their own limits. The new guidance is a dramatic reduction from the previous 2016 advisory limit of 70 parts per trillion, indicating just how serious federal regulators feel the public health threat is.
The dataset released by the state this month is also notable for what’s missing. Of the 751 water systems on the list, 81% (613) do not include information on concentration levels. Of those, 34 are “pending/unconfirmed,” and 579 are listed as having “no results available.” That means the number of communities with levels above the 20 parts per trillion cutoff is only likely to grow.
With all of this news, it’s worth remembering for a moment how we got here.
Like so many consequential discoveries, the useful properties of per – and polyfluoroalkyl substances were found accidentally — in this case, by 27-year-old scientist Roy J. Plunkett in 1938. Plunkett was actually trying to solve another problem of things poisoning people — his first assignment working for DuPont was to look into chlorofluorocarbon refrigerants (CFCs), which researchers hoped could replace refrigerants like sulfur dioxide and ammonia that were hazardous for homeowners and food industry workers alike. (CFCs would of course turn out to have their own problems.)
In the course of that research, Plunkett stumbled upon what would later be the basis for Teflon. The white, waxy substance was kind of miraculous: chemically inert, it was resistant to corrosion and heat, and its very low surface friction also made it resistant to sticking to things, including water and oil. As a fusion of carbon and fluorine atoms, it was also nearly impossible to break up (hence the “forever” part).
At first the substance was expensive to produce, and was not widely used outside of industry. But as production costs decreased, PFAS began showing up in the consumer marketplace: first in the 1950s, in Teflon pans, and then in, well, basically everything, from raincoats to dental floss and bike lube.
It wasn’t long before evidence emerged that PFAS might be toxic. 3M, the company manufacturing the chemicals (which they called “C8”), knew as early as 1950 that they built up in the blood of mice. A 1963 company manual deemed them “toxic,” and in the 1980s 3M reassigned women from working with them for fear of risks to a developing fetus. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, DuPont and 3M studies found elevated cancer rates among workers.
But it wasn’t until the early 2000s that evidence of the destructive nature made its way to the public, after cattle on a farm in West Virginia, following DuPont’s purchase of nearby land for a waste dump, began vomiting blood and growing tumors. The family who owned the cattle, the Tennants, sued DuPont and eventually settled.
But the attorney representing the family, Rob Bilott, couldn’t rest. Using the information he’d obtained during the Tennant case, Bilott sent a 972 page letter (including more than 130 exhibits) to a number of regulatory authorities, including Christie Whitman, then-administrator of the EPA.
The letter alleged that the company had known for years that excessive exposure to C8 was toxic and carcinogenic, and that, despite promises to the contrary, had dumped thousands of tons of sludge filled with the stuff into a landfill near to the grazing grounds for the Tennants’ cattle.
The letter eventually led to DuPont settling with the EPA in 2005 for $16.5 million. The company was not required to admit liability. It’s worth reading these excellent stories, which discuss the farm, the legal case and its aftermath, if you haven’t already: “The Teflon Toxin,” “Welcome to Beautiful Parkersburg, West Virginia,” and “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare.” Bilott also wrote a book, Exposure, about his two decades working on the issue.
Bilott’s letter was important not only because it exposed the risks of PFAS, but also because it “lifted the curtain on a whole new theater,’’ Harry Deitzler, a lawyer in West Virginia who works with Bilott, told the New York Times in 2016. ‘‘Before that letter, corporations could rely upon the public misperception that if a chemical was dangerous, it was regulated.’’
The Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 was the first bill “ever written anywhere in the world to attempt to regulate toxic chemicals,” said physician Lynn R. Goldman, speaking to a roundtable group at the Institute of Medicine in 2014. Despite that groundbreaking law, the US takes a relatively hands-off approach to chemical regulation compared to some nations. Under the TSCA, the burden is on the EPA, rather than the company, to show the chemical might pose risks to the public.
“We have to make a case for toxicity or exposure,” Wendy Cleland-Hamnett, then-director of the EPA’s Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics, told the group.
This has often meant states have taken on the task of regulating certain chemicals on their own. In the case of PFAS, Minnesota was one of the first to begin investigating and issuing guidelines, all the way back in 2002. A number of other states, including California, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Washington and, in recent years, Maine, have since followed suit.
But it’s not always easy. As The Bangor Daily News reported in June, Maine’s attempts to gather data on companies which Maine manufacturers are using PFAS and discharging it as waste have been stymied by a federal loophole that appears to allow facilities to evade reporting. (If you’re overwhelmed by the regulation Maine has passed recently on PFAS, I find this tracker by Pierce Atwood to be helpful in keeping tabs on things.)
It’s also difficult to regulate something that’s already in just about everything, which often means the source of the pollution isn’t clear. Officials in Fryeburg, for instance, told WGME13 on Monday that they have no idea how forever chemicals ended up in one of the town wells, which showed PFAS levels of 33 parts per trillion.
The nearest sludge site is a mile away, Maine Water Spokesman Dan Meaney told the news channel, and the town will need to do more investigating to pinpoint the source. “If [pinpointing it is] possible at all.”
To read the full edition of this newsletter, see PFAS, PFAS everywhere and way too much to drink.
Kate Cough covers climate change and the environment for The Maine Monitor. Reach her by email with ideas for other stories at firstname.lastname@example.org.