The University of Maine plans to open a research center to test for harmful forever chemicals and guide the science needed to help Maine farmers dealing with contaminated wells, herds and fields.

Creating an in-house analytical lab to detect perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, in water, soil, crops and animal tissue will virtually eliminate the four- to six-week testing lag that has plagued UMaine researchers and state agencies tasked with tracking the chemicals.

“Maine is leading the way on PFAS, but there is so much research to be done,” said Dean Hannah Carter of the UMaine Cooperative Extension. “We need to document the scope of the problem, determine its causes, and investigate solutions. To do that, we need testing capacity.”

The center will join a growing number of PFAS-focused research labs opening around the country. Some focus on public outreach and training, others on PFAS politics and regulations. UMaine is using the University of Michigan as a model and will focus on testing and research.

UMaine has researchers ready to dive into topics ranging from alternative food crops that can safely grow on contaminated fields to new methods to remove and even destroy PFAS, but they lacked a long-term funding plan and outfitted lab in which to work, Carter said – until now.

The university plans to open the lab in Orono this year. It will not accept water, soil or tissue samples submitted by private landowners for testing, but university officials believe it will still reduce testing turnaround times for private landowners by easing the institutional demand on commercial labs.


The center is funded by $8 million included in the $1.7 trillion federal spending bill signed by President Biden on Thursday. It is an example of an earmark: a provision attached to a spending bill, in this case by Maine Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King, to fund a specific project.

The bill also includes $5 million, secured by U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to fund federal PFAS testing and help farmers hurt by PFAS, with priority given to farmers in a few states, like Maine, with PFAS limits on food products.

“Maine has led the nation in testing and responding to PFAS contamination on farmland,” Pingree said last week after the House passed the bill 225-201. “However, without any sort of safety net at USDA to support PFAS-impacted farmers, the people who feed us could lose everything.”

Maine Farmland Trust Policy and Research Director Shelley Megquier said the funding was urgently needed as other states begin to realize what Maine already knows – PFAS contamination endangers farm families, the agricultural sector, and the local, regional and national food system.

This funding will “accelerate research efforts on PFAS uptake, mitigation, and remediation methods,” Megquier said in a written statement. “Getting this support and evidence to impacted farmers will help to ensure that farmers in Maine and across the country continue to thrive.”

On Friday, Commissioner Amanda Beal called UMaine an important partner in the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry’s PFAS response and mitigation work. She said she was grateful for the financial support that will make an in-house testing lab a reality.


“These resources will enable them to expand their work on the forefront of PFAS research to help Maine – and ultimately all states – in efforts to address the impacts of PFAS contamination,” said Beal, whose department provides technical and financial help to farmers impacted by PFAS.

So-called forever chemicals, which got this name because they don’t naturally break down, are found in the blood of 97 percent of Americans. Research shows some PFAS compounds decrease fertility, cause metabolic disorders, damage the immune system and increase the risk of cancer.

The water and heat-resistant family of chemicals have been used in food packaging, cosmetics, cookware, and waterproof coatings for 70 years. It flows into us, and then out of us through waste. For years, the resulting sludge or septage from wastewater treatment plants was spread as fertilizer on 700 farms across Maine.

Maine has taken a leading role in regulating PFAS, often outpacing federal authorities. Its PFAS drinking water standard is stricter than the national standard, at least for now. Federal authorities have not set PFAS limits for milk or beef, but Maine set limits in 2017 and 2020, respectively.

Last year, Maine became the first U.S. state to ban the sale of products containing PFAS except those deemed “unavoidable,” such as medical products. The ban does not go into effect until 2030, but starting this year, manufacturers must report any PFAS in locally sold products to the state.

Maine has spent more than $100 million over two years to address PFAS. That includes $60 million set aside to fund PFAS research and help impacted farmers clean up the contamination, change crops or cropping methods to something safe, or buy them out, if necessary.


The Extension Service was created to do the specialized, localized research needed to provide scientific, technical and short- and long-term farm management support to Maine farmers, Carter said. Such research could save them from economic ruin and keep food consumers safe from harm.

For example, research shows that despite the name, PFAS chemicals don’t last forever in livestock. PFAS levels can fall to acceptable levels in cow milk and meat after two months, and chicken eggs after a few weeks if tainted water or feed is removed. That makes culling the livestock unnecessary.

The PFAS lab won’t be limited to farming research, Carter said. One of the first UMaine academics to use the lab will be Onur Apul, an environmental engineering professor who got a $250,000 National Science Foundation grant to study how superheated charcoal could help break down PFAS.

The creation of a research center will promote collaboration by bringing together researchers spread out across the UMaine system, the state agencies overseeing agriculture, environmental protection, and health, and agricultural organizations, Carter said.

UMaine hasn’t decided where to put the lab, only that it will be on or next to the Orono campus, Carter said. The $5 million will pay for lab equipment, she said; the money used to hire a dedicated lab technician will come from existing budgets.

Carter hopes the lab will be open in time to do test samples collected during the 2023 growing season.


Maine Farmland Trust Deputy Director Ellen Griswold, whose group worked with the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association to disburse almost $700,000 in PFAS aid to impacted farmers, said the funds will help promote a strong and vibrant future for Maine agriculture.

“This funding will accelerate much-needed research so that farmers can pursue practices and business models that allow them to continue farming, provide the testing infrastructure needed to identify contamination more efficiently, and further remediation research,” Griswold said.

The $3 million research earmark will be used to fund a proposal from UMaine, the Extension Service, and the state agencies overseeing Maine’s PFAS response that lays out a comprehensive research plan to identify and aid Maine farmers affected by PFAS contamination.

The proposal was created in response to a state law promoting research projects that support long-term farm viability despite the threat of PFAS. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Bill Pluecker, I-Warren, said the research must determine how contaminated Maine farms can still viably operate.

With the PFAS money included in the spending bill, Maine can really dig deep to look for local answers to a problem that has caused high PFAS levels at half a dozen Maine farms to date. The farmers stopped selling their milk, beef or crops while looking for fixes; two have permanently closed.

The resulting scare sent shockwaves through Maine’s farming community as producers wondered what they would find if they tested their own wells, fields and herds. Contamination dated back decades, to former owners and even neighbors. Sometimes it came from trucked-in hay.


The state is testing wells located near state-licensed sludge or septage spreading sites for free, starting in the highest-risk areas. So far, Maine has tested about 1,200 wells, with about a quarter exceeding state standards. But there are about 300,000 private wells in Maine.

Landowners who don’t qualify for a state test, or who don’t want to wait, can pay a private lab for $200 to $500 to test their well water. No in-state lab can do the test, but some of them work with accredited out-of-state labs. Sky-high results may lead to state reimbursement. Results can take up to six weeks.

The state advises private landowners with elevated PFAS in their well water to switch to bottled water – even though bottled water companies do not have to test for PFAS – until they can install filtration systems, which start at about $5,000.

The Maine Department of Environmental Protection began hunting for forever chemicals at hundreds of licensed sludge dispersal sites across the state last year, 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 is 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.

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