UNITY — More than one-third of a sample of residential water wells in town recently were found to contain unsafe levels of so-called “forever chemicals” after state officials recently ramped up efforts to test for PFAS in local water supplies.

Of the 91 water wells the state tested in Unity as of late November, 33 of those had higher PFAS levels than what the state says is safe, according to data from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.

The spate of water testing comes after a cluster of wells at residences near Depot Street were found to be unsafe, said David Madore, the department’s deputy commissioner. Though the Department of Environmental Protection first began investigating PFAS spreading near downtown Unity in June of this year, Madore said there is no timeline for when the investigation will be complete.

Madore said the department initially identified 17 homes on Depot Street with PFAS concentrations above 20 parts per trillion, which is the state’s safety standard. State officials are “in the process of procuring a contract to install drinking water filtration systems at these homes,” Madore said.

PFAS, which stands for per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, are a group of synthetic chemicals that repel both oil and water. The chemicals do not break down in the body or the environment, earning them the nickname “forever chemicals.” Created in the 1940s, they have been used in a wide variety of consumer goods from cookware to jackets, but PFAS contamination in Maine has been largely linked to the spreading of sludge on farms as an alternative to fertilizer beginning in the 1970s.

Research shows that PFAS contamination could cause long-term health problems, including increased risk of testicular cancer, liver damage, pregnancy complications and other adverse health risks.


Antonio Avila, the chair of Unity’s Board of Selectmen, said that the town’s government has been largely uninvolved with the state’s response to PFAS. He said that the community’s PFAS problem was enabled by state regulators who approved the use of PFAS-laden fertilizers for decades on farms in and around Unity.

“We haven’t heard anything at the town office level about this bout of testing,” he said. “Personally, I think it’s an injustice because it was proven years ago that PFAS was a hazardous substance. So why did the state approve it? Chase the money, I say.”

PFAS spreading has been confirmed in multiple areas around Unity, including near houses on Depot Street, farms along the Albion Road, and land south of Unity Environmental College, according to the state’s “sludge map,” which displays all available PFAS testing data.

Additional tests are being conducted at houses along Main Street, Thorndike Road, and Stagecoach Road as the state continues its investigation into PFAS in the area, Madore said. The sources of contamination have not yet been identified.

Dr. Gail Carlson, the director of Colby College’s Buck Lab for Climate and Environment, has studied the causes and effects of PFAS contamination for years. She said that years of misguided policy, a lack of regulatory oversight, and the tricky properties of PFAS chemicals have culminated in a pervasive issue for residents of Unity and other rural towns in central Maine.

“We’ve known about the dangers of these chemicals for over two decades,” she said. “When I first started teaching environmental health 20 years ago, I taught about the dangers of PFAS in my first class. When they first started marketing PFAS chemicals around 1950 or so, they already knew the hazards. … It’s not surprising to me that a third of wells tested in Unity would be contaminated.”


Carlson said that the contamination in and around Unity is so widespread in large part due to the chemicals’ tendency to spread across wide swaths of land and embed themselves in soil, water, plants, and animals. The properties of PFAS make them particularly difficult to remove from the environment, she said.

“These chemicals don’t stay put once they’re applied to the land,” she said. “My research has found that there is widespread movement in surface water and groundwater of these chemicals away from these lands that were spread. That means that Waterville faces contamination issues because of what’s in Fairfield. There are PFAS going in and out of China Lake, and Waterville’s public drinking water supply comes from China Lake.”

The area surrounding Unity has been hit hard by PFAS contamination. State testing data shows that in nearby Fairfield, which has been described as “the epicenter of PFAS exposure in Maine,” nearly 40% of tested wells had more PFAS than the state says is safe. In Benton, which sits between Fairfield and Unity, 67% of tested wells were classified as unsafe.

It’s not just the area’s water that state has deemed unsafe, either. The state told people not to eat wildlife near Fairfield and Waterville since 2021 due to unsafe amounts of PFAS found in deer and turkey meat. Farms in the area were among the first in the state to be shut down after forever chemicals were found in produce and cows’ milk.

Carlson said many experts share concerns that PFAS have already seeped their way into ecosystems in Maine and around the country, saying that PFAS-laden fertilizer sludge was applied at various farms in all 50 states and that drinking water from nearly half of U.S. faucets contains at least some amount of PFAS.

“It was promoted as a win-win situation a good situation for farmers, because they could take the sludge and get basically free fertilizer from the state in many places, including in Maine,” she said. “Not all the lands that were spread were farmlands, but many are, including many in central Maine. I think other states have problems, but they may be behind in discovering them.”


Available data shows that out of the 2,461 groundwater wells tested statewide, 22% of them — or 540 in total — tested higher than 20 parts per trillion, Maine’s current safety standard. In addition to residential well contamination, the DEP’s data included validated self-tester data, closed municipal landfill sites, active commercial sites, and “all other remediation-type sites.”

Maine’s state legislature has been aggressive with its response to PFAS, including passing a first-in-the-nation PFAS reporting law in 2021 that requires manufacturers of products with intentionally added PFAS to report to the DEP beginning in 2025, and eventually bans the sale of certain items in Maine starting in 2030.

States around the country have begun looking to Maine’s PFAS response as a model to follow, with 33 states passing more than 200 laws and policies this year alone regarding the chemicals. Many of the laws are similar to Maine’s bans on PFAS usage in food packaging, carpets, and other consumer products.

Companies around the world have objected to the law, saying the bill’s language is too vague and makes it difficult for companies to identify self-report PFAS in their products. Others, including car manufacturers and firefighters, say that the PFAS chemicals used in electric car batteries, firefighting foam, and other technologies can’t be replaced.

Testing groundwater sources for PFAS became mandatory after the state legislature passed a law in 2021 appropriating $3,600,000 to test for and mitigate PFAS contamination. Maine also banned the use and spreading of sludge just last year, becoming the first state to do so.

A number of programs are offered by the state to help remediate PFAS contamination, including paying for the filters that remove the chemicals from the drinking water and helping cover the cost of medical treatment for PFAS-related illness. A new proposed rule could also provide farms reimbursement for lost wages, infrastructure changes, and other damages related to PFAS contamination.

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