Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), widely known as “forever chemicals,” are threatening communities here in Maine and across the United States. We are going to bring you beyond the headlines to explain what they are, why they’re a big problem with a difficult solution, and where we’re headed next. Let’s start at the beginning.
What are PFAS and where are they found?
PFAS are a family of complex compounds primarily consisting of perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA).
PFAS can make materials stain-resistant, waterproof, and/or nonstick, and can be found in things like nonstick cookware (e.g., Teflon®), stain resistant sprays (e.g., Scotchgard®), water resistant apparel (e.g., Gore-Tex®), and many other common household items ranging from nail polish to microwave popcorn bags.
Foams made from PFAS are also very effective at fighting petroleum product-based fires, and have been used extensively by many fire departments, airports, and military bases.
Unfortunately, “forever chemicals” have the same lasting impact on the environment and the human body. Instead of breaking down, they actually bioaccumulate over time. While the potential health effects are not conclusive, we do know PFAS are very persistent in the environment and are often detected in soil, water, and in the human body.
When it comes to humans, EPA findings suggest that PFAS may:
- Affect the developing fetus and child, including possible changes in growth, learning, and behavior
- Decrease fertility and interfere with the body’s natural hormones
- Increase cholesterol
- Affect the immune system
- Increase cancer risk
During the 1980s and 1990s, studies found PFAS in a large percentage of blood samples from non-occupationally exposed people around the world. By 2002, the primary manufacturers in the United States began to phase out their PFAS use, and the process was completed in 2015.
But, that’s not the end of this story.
In the news and here to stay
According to The National Law Review, “the PFAS litigation thus far has centered on lawsuits filed against PFAS manufacturers for environmental cleanup and remediation, with some lawsuits against these companies for personal injury claims.” With a quick online search, you can see what’s happening right now around the United States – with some contentious legal battles up ahead.
Here in Maine, we’ve had some disturbing recent news:
- Chemicals are turning up in well water across the state at levels 300 to 400 times higher than the federal health advisory level. Source
- In 2020, state regulators found PFAS levels more than 150 times higher than the state’s milk standard on a Fairfield dairy farm that had used contaminated sludge as fertilizer. Source
- A Fairfield couple discovered that biosolids spread on the same nearby farm contaminated their (and their neighbors’) well. State well tests found 12,000 parts per trillion (ppt) of one known-problematic PFAS called perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and 12,800 ppt of another, perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS). For context, the EPA health advisory level is 70 ppt and Maine’s newly-passed state limit is 20 ppt. Source
We may see even more headlines up ahead, since Governor Janet T. Mills just signed a law broadening the definition of allowable legal cases alleging damage or injury from PFAS. Now, they can be filed up to six years after the harm was or could reasonably have been discovered.
A complex problem with some common sources
PFAS are so widespread because they start out in lots of places. Here’s some typical sources where they are found:
- Biosolids: As defined by the EPA: “Biosolids are a product of the wastewater treatment process. During wastewater treatment the liquids are separated from the solids. Those solids are then treated physically and chemically to produce a semisolid, nutrient-rich product known as biosolids. The terms ‘biosolids’ and ‘sewage sludge’ are often used interchangeably.” Since biosolids were largely considered beneficial to agricultural land and reclamation sites (i.e., mining sites), they have been used in many places, especially in central Maine with State approval. Unfortunately, many biosolids spread across the land are contaminated with PFAS.
- Well water: In the Fairfield case, experts say chemicals in biosolids (legally used as farm fertilizer) leached into the groundwater for decades – causing the crisis in this community today.
- Factories: Smokestacks can emit PFAS; and depending on wind patterns, the chemicals can travel to new communities and contaminate the ground.
- Specific industries: Certain businesses (including car washes and ski shops) were higher PFAS users than others. When sites of these businesses – or even neighboring properties – go up for sale, they require close inspection, especially since banks typically require assessments of nearby areas. Additionally, all military bases have used PFAS for firefighting tests, especially Air Force bases concerned about planes catching on fire, and many local fire departments have done the same.
The solution is complicated
Identifying PFAS can be tricky, and their persistence can make site remediation difficult.
As we speak, some affected towns in New Hampshire are spending millions of dollars on new water systems; and the State of Maine is also stepping up. In July 2021, a state law requiring manufacturers to report their use of a class of toxic chemicals, and to phase them out by 2030, came into effect. Maine also has a new statute requiring land and groundwater tests where sludge has been spread.
St.Germain can help businesses and property owners tackle the first steps of site assessment: Site evaluation and water source evaluations. Our experts in contaminant geochemistry can keep you a step ahead of the headlines, with fluency not just in a few of the best-known PFAS, but in the 36+ that we know can impact environmental and human health. We understand how these contaminants behave, and we can help you plan next steps should any exist on your property.
If you need a site and/or water evaluation, or if you’d like to learn more about PFAS, St.Germain can help. Call us at (207) 591-7000 to get started.
Keith Taylor, L.G., P.G., is the Technical Lead and Senior Environmental Geologist on the St.Germain team. He specializes in the interpretation of geologic, water quality and chemical data, with notable expertise in assessing risk, liability, and remedial options on contaminated properties. Keith has been a consulting hydrogeologist since 1986, has an MS degree in geology, and is a Maine Licensed Geologist and New Hampshire Professional Geologist. Additionally, Keith recently taught at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine. His course, EACS 114 – Water in Maine, focuses on the science of surface water and groundwater in Maine and how these resources are managed.