A new federal advisory has turned Maine’s forever chemical problem from a health crisis plaguing farms and rural communities that rely on wells into a nearly impossible challenge for public water districts serving hundreds of thousands of residents across the state.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued drinking water recommendations that warn even trace amounts of two of the oldest, most well-researched forever chemicals – PFOA and PFOS – can pose significant human health risks.

“People on the front lines of PFAS contamination have suffered for far too long,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said. “That’s why EPA is taking aggressive action as part of a whole-of-government approach to prevent these chemicals from entering the environment and to help protect concerned families.”

Called forever chemicals because of how long they take to break down, these manmade compounds used in common household products as well as industrial settings have been linked to compromised immune and cardiovascular systems, decreased fertility, low birth weights, and several types of cancer.

The soil and grass at Stoneridge Farm in Arundel, shown in 2019, is contaminated with PFAS chemicals as are the cows and their milk, a result of the sewage sludge spread on the farm fields between 1983 and 2004. The farmers’ plight shifted the focus of concern over the chemicals. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

States have been waiting years for the federal government to update drinking water standards to address the growing body of evidence that shows forever chemicals build up in the human body over time, as well as the environment, and can be especially harmful to the young, the sick and the old.

“I’m so pleased the EPA finally stepped up and took action,” said Maine Rep. Bill Pluecker, I-Warren, a farmer who helped lead the state fight to protect Mainers from PFAS. “It’s a much bigger decrease than anybody expected. It’s too early to say how it will impact Maine. There’s still so much work to be done.”


The amount of perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, that can be present in drinking water and still be considered safe under the EPA’s new health advisory is 0.004 parts per trillion – an amount so small it is undetectable by present-day commercial laboratories.


That number is thousands of times smaller than the 70 parts per trillion currently allowed by federal drinking water standards set in 2016. It is more aggressive than Maine’s interim combined limit of 20 parts per trillion for six PFAS chemicals. When set last year, Maine’s limit was the strictest in the United States.

To put the EPA 0.004 parts per trillion limit in context, consider these National Sea Grant Program analogies used to describe chemical concentrations: it is like placing four postage stamps on an envelope the size of California and Oregon, or singling out four strands of hair from all the human heads on Earth.

The amount of perfluorooctane sulfonic acid, or PFOS, that can be safely consumed in drinking water – 0.02 parts per trillion – is only slightly bigger than the updated PFOA limit. For context, imagine 20 postage stamps on the California-Oregon envelope or 20 strands out of a planet full of human hair.

The EPA released the health advisory in light of newly available science to provide technical information that federal, state and local officials can use to inform the development of monitoring plans, remediation investments and future regulatory policies.


The advisory numbers are so much lower than existing standards because they consider lifetime adverse health impacts from the exposure of all people, including sensitive populations and life ranges, to a wide range of potential PFAS sources, not just drinking water.

Until now, Maine’s forever chemical crisis has been limited to those who rely on well water to drink or irrigate their fields located near farms that used sludge-based fertilizer, factories that used forever chemicals or airports and military bases where firefighting foam was used.


A new state law requires all of Maine’s public water districts to test for PFAS by the end of the year to see if they meet Maine’s current limit of 20 parts per trillion of six different forever chemicals, including the two singled out in the updated federal advisory.

Those who have already tested meet the state PFAS limits, but many, including Portland and Augusta and Kennebec, will fall far short of what the EPA now says is safe, leaving district operators with more questions than answers.

Many of these districts have proudly posted their PFAS test results.


The Greater Augusta Utility District said this on its website: “The good news for you is that we have conducted tests showing very low levels of PFAS in your drinking water. Based on these test results, your water is safe.”

But in March, the district, which delivers over 640 million gallons of water a year to 5,700 customers in five towns, recorded 4.44 parts per trillion of PFOA and 3.49 parts per trillion of PFOS, plus 2.61 parts per trillion of another unregulated forever chemical, at its Riverside Station.

Some public water districts, like those serving Bangor and the Lewiston-Auburn area, have not detected a forever chemical in their water supply, usually because they own the lake that feeds the watershed and shield it from development. Some, like Bath, have never tested for PFAS before.

Portland Water District only had one detectable forever chemical in its 2019 tests, for example, but the amount, 2 parts per trillion found in Sebago Lake, is 500 times higher than what is recommended by the new EPA health advisory.

“One part per trillion is often described as one drop in an Olympic sized swimming pool or 30 seconds out of every million years,” said Michelle Clements of Portland Water District. “So you can see two parts per trillion is very small!”

Portland Water District will test for PFAS again this summer, using the latest sampling methods to look for an even longer list of potential forever chemicals. Clements said it is too early to say what the district will do if it finds PFOS or PFOA in excess of what EPA is recommending.


Although it wasn’t required, the Kennebec Water District began proactive PFAS testing in 2019. Water test results showed PFAS levels in the public water system at 8 parts per trillion, which is less than half of the Maine regulatory standard. General Manager Roger Crouse was happy.


On Tuesday, that happiness turned to disbelief. Like everyone else in the industry, Crouse was expecting a decrease. But he never thought the EPA health advisory number – which is considered a tipoff to what the final federal limit will be next year – was many orders of magnitude lower than even Maine’s limits.

“I am still in disbelief,” said Crouse, who managed the state’s drinking water program program before coming to Kennebec Water District. “It’s so far below what even the most sophisticated testing can see that it’s impossible for anyone to know if their water is completely safe.”

Crouse is still evaluating his options on how to bring that 8 parts per trillion reading down to below the health advisory level that he expects to eventually become a federal requirement. The district will likely hire a technical consultant – if they can find one that isn’t already full up – to consider future steps.

The interim health advisory will create a huge class of water users in need of that technical expertise. It will put a huge strain on the small network of water consultants, water filter installers, and suppliers of the raw materials used to treat tainted water. Delays and price hikes will likely result, Crouse said.


The state is already facing months-long waits for some of its more complicated PFAS lab tests.

The state says that for now they will just keep doing what they’re doing. No one responded to questions about whether the bottled water and filtration systems Maine is currently installing in houses with contaminated wells meet EPA’s new drinking water recommendations.

In total, Maine has dedicated and proposed more than $100 million over the past two years to address PFAS, said Lindsay Crete, Gov. Janet Mills’ spokeswoman. Maine was one of only a dozen states at the time to adopt drinking standards more stringent than federal ones, she said.

“(She) understands the risk that PFAS poses to the lives and livelihoods of Maine people,” Crete said.

The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention is working toward adopting a permanent drinking water standard by 2024, Crete said. Maine will take the new EPA advisory into consideration as it develops its permanent standard, Crete said.



These are recommendations, not regulations, and are thus not enforceable in court, but it is putting states on notice about what they can expect when the EPA issues its proposed drinking water standards later this summer.

The Maine Department of Environmental Protection has begun hunting for forever chemicals at hundreds of licensed sludge dispersal sites across the state, but it will take years to work through the ever-changing list of more than 700 properties.

A team of chemists, geologists, engineers and technicians are investigating each location, starting off with the drinking well nearest the fields where the sludge, septic tank sewage, or industrial waste was applied as fertilizer. If unsafe levels of forever chemicals are found, the testing area expands.

The agency has prioritized the list based on the type and amount of sludge spread at the site and its proximity to housing. About 50 sites in 34 towns fall into its highest risk category. DEP has begun investigating about half of these high-risk cases.

Some people who don’t want to wait are hiring private labs from as far away as California, Washington state and Florida to test their soil and well water for unsafe levels of PFAS.

If the results come back over Maine’s PFAS limit, DEP will reimburse homeowners, so long as they live near one of the 700 sludge dispersal sites included on the map. Residential PFAS testing can run from $250 to $500, depending on the kind of PFAS testing done.

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