Aaron Sypek, of Gray, casts for trout Nov. 30 at Range Pond State Park in Poland. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

Maine anglers can’t be sure the fish they hope to hook are safe to eat because the overwhelming majority of the state’s 6,000 lakes and ponds and 32,000 miles of rivers haven’t been tested for potentially harmful “forever chemicals.”

The state has tested 1,800 fish culled from 112 locations since it first began testing for perfluoroalkyl and poly-fluoroalkyl substances. Even trace amounts of these manmade compounds have been linked to compromised immune systems, low birth weights and several types of cancer.

The results have prompted the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention to issue consumption limits for 10 ponds, lakes, streams and rivers from Sanford to Limestone, and two locations in Fairfield where PFAS levels are so high that no fish from there should be consumed at all.

Some advisories target specific species. Sanford anglers shouldn’t eat more than one largemouth bass a month from Number One Pond, a popular fishing spot on the Mousam River. Downstream, however, it gets more restrictive, with no more than three meals per year of any species past the dam to Estes Lake.

Anglers on the Presumpscot River – which has its genesis at Sebago Lake before dropping 270 feet over 5 miles and emptying into Casco Bay in Falmouth – should eat no more than four fish a year landed between Saccarappa Falls in Westbrook and Presumpscot Falls in Falmouth.

Not making the state advisory list doesn’t mean a particular fishing spot or the fish lurking in its waters are free of PFAS. The 112 locations that DEP’s aquatics toxicology team have tested since 2014 represent just 1% of Maine’s 11,000 ponds, lakes, streams and rivers.


Additional fishing holes in central and southern Maine – including the Androscoggin River in Brunswick and the Kennebec River in Gardiner – are under review and could soon be the subject of advisories after preliminary tests found fish with elevated levels of PFAS.

The overwhelming majority of freshwater fishing holes remain untested because it is difficult to find a lab that can test the fish tissue, the turnaround time is long and the fees are high – $500 for every five-fish sample. At that rate, Maine would have spent $180,000 on the limited testing it has done.

These long-lasting chemicals, of which there are an estimated 15,000 and growing, have a unique ability to repel oil, grease and water. They can be found in industrial products, such as firefighting foam, and many common household items, like stain-resistant carpets and waterproof clothing.


Maine tests for 40 different forever chemicals in the fish it collects, but the one found in nearly all fish sampled, even if only in small amounts, is perfluorooctane sulfonic acid, or PFOS, a forever chemical once found in 3M’s Scotchgard.

“It’s this unfortunate goldilocks,” said Tom Danielson, who heads up the aquatic toxicology unit at the Maine Department of Environmental Protection. “It’s in the water, it’s in the sediment and it’s in the fish, and unlike some of the other forever chemicals, the fish can’t seem to get rid of it.”


Those chemicals get transferred from water and sediment to fish, and then to anything that eats that fish, including bigger fish; fish-loving birds, such as loons, ospreys and eagles; animals, such as snakes, raccoons and otters; and, of course, humans.

Using federal public health data, the Maine CDC has concluded that a weekly fish fillet is safe to eat if it contains less than 3.5 parts per billion of PFOS.

The CDC will issue a do-not-eat advisory when fish cannot be safely eaten at a rate of at least three meals per year, or when PFOS levels in the fish at that location surpass 60 parts per billion. Maine has issued such advisories at Fairfield’s Fish Brook and Police Athletic League Ponds.

Fairfield is home to some of Maine’s highest forever chemical concentrations. The state-licensed use of sludge as an agricultural fertilizer by local farmers has led to contamination of the groundwater, dozens of drinking wells and even the milk produced at two of its dairy farms.

Officials concede that much of that sludge came from the Kennebec Sanitary Treatment District, which accepts industrial wastewater from the Huhtamaki paper packaging mill in Waterville. Huhtamaki makes Chinet paper plates, school lunch trays and drink carriers.

While the state has a long way to go before it can assure anglers that it is safe to eat a fish from lake or river that is not on its PFAS consumption advisory list, Maine is one of only 17 states that is testing and has established some advisory thresholds.


Its do-not-eat threshold is also one of the most protective of human health – coming in fourth behind New Hampshire, Washington and North Carolina, which have set thresholds of 25.7 parts per billion, 28.2 parts per billion and 35 parts per billion, respectively. Alabama was the least restrictive of those 17 states at 800 parts per billion.

State regulators acknowledge state limits may soon become even more protective after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency finalizes its first national PFAS drinking water standards. PFOS is likely to be capped at 4 parts per trillion – or, to keep it in fish-level units, 0.004 parts per billion.

To help understand such small sizes, consider these National Sea Grant Program analogies used to describe chemical concentrations: 4 parts per trillion 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.

Consumption advisories – which are printed on state websites and fishing law books and posted on signs at impacted waterbodies – don’t affect the average Maine fisherman because only 4% eat what they catch, according to a Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife survey. But it’s unknown how many people are eating fish they shouldn’t.

Danielson said he saw fishermen leaving the Police Athletic League Ponds in Fairfield – one of the two places where the Maine CDC has concluded that no fish landed is safe to eat – with their catch in hand when he was there last year collecting fish to test.

Advocacy groups like Defend Our Health, a Portland-based nonprofit that lobbies for stricter PFAS laws, and Environmental Working Group, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit, warn that people who regularly consume freshwater fish they catch may be at risk of alarming levels of PFAS in their bodies.


“Growing up, I went fishing every week and ate those fish,” said David Andrews, a senior EWG scientist, when publishing research last year on high PFAS levels in America’s freshwater fish. “But now when I see fish, all I think about is PFAS contamination.”

Maine’s response to forever chemicals has been focused on those who rely on waters from wells located near farms that used sludge-based fertilizer, factories that used forever chemicals, or airports and military bases where firefighting foam was used.

The state is on the front lines of PFAS legislation and research. Last year, after a string of farms connected to the state’s decades-old sludge spreading program shut down because of PFAS contamination, Maine became the first state to ban sludge recycling and PFAS in nonessential products.

Maine is about halfway through testing about 1,100 sites across the state where sludge, septic tank sewage and industrial waste had been applied to farm fields as fertilizer. It just launched a $70 million PFAS Relief Fund for impacted farmers that will include monitoring for long-term health impacts.

Researchers are still learning about the health effects of PFAS exposure. In 2022, a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine report linked PFAS exposure to decreased vaccine response, certain cancers, thyroid dysfunction and low birth weight, among other long-term health effects.

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