The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency adopted the first-ever federal drinking water standard for forever chemicals on Wednesday, setting limits for harmful compounds known as PFAS that are much lower than the temporary standard Maine adopted three years ago.

By reducing exposure to forever chemicals, federal regulators claim the limit will prevent thousands of premature deaths, tens of thousands of serious illnesses – including certain cancers and liver and heart impacts in adults – and immune and developmental impacts to infants and children.

Technical Director Sara Dunne explains the process used to test water for PFAS contamination at Maine Laboratories on Main Street in Norridgewock in February 2023. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

“Drinking water contaminated with PFAS has plagued communities across this country for too long,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said. “That is why President Biden has made tackling PFAS a top priority, investing historic resources to address these harmful chemicals and protect communities.”

In 2021, Maine adopted an interim drinking water limit of 20 parts per trillion for six per- and polyfluoroalkyl chemicals, alone or in combination. It was one of the last New England states to set a PFAS drinking water limit, with only Rhode Island trailing Maine.

While each state limit is different, sometimes singling out different PFAS chemicals, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Vermont share Maine’s overall maximum contaminant level of 20 parts per trillion. Connecticut and New Hampshire’s limits are stricter at 10 and 12 parts per trillion, respectively.

The new national limits are 4 parts per trillion for PFOA and PFOS, two of the oldest and most toxic forever chemicals, and 10 parts per trillion for three others. Regulators have said even traces of PFOA and PFOS are dangerous, but lab equipment can only detect amounts greater than 4 parts per trillion.


The EPA predicts 1 in 10 U.S. water systems serving some 100 million people will exceed its new limit.

Private well owners are responsible for ensuring their water is safe to drink. The quality and safety of private domestic wells are not regulated by the federal government under the Safe Drinking Water Act, nor by most state laws. About half of Maine’s residents gets their drinking water from a private well.

A spokesman for the Maine Department of Environmental Protection said Tuesday in anticipation of the federal announcement that it would take the state a week or two to understand how the new federal limit will impact Maine’s multi-agency response to its forever chemical crisis.

But Maine will take steps to align its interim standard with the new federal one, Gov. Janet Mills said.

“PFAS contamination threatens the health of our people, our wildlife, and our environment,” the governor said in a statement.  “My administration appreciates this new, national drinking water standard, which builds on our nation-leading work, as part of the critical effort to protect the health of Maine people.”

The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention will propose final state standards through the rule-making process. The Department of Health and Human Services has been working with public water systems for months in anticipation of the EPA limit, state public health officials said.



Advocacy groups working to rid Maine’s water and food supply of PFAS applauded the long-awaited rule.

“Impacted communities in Maine and across the country have been raising the alarm bells and tirelessly organizing for these drinking water protections for years,” said Dana Colihan, a facilitator of the National PFAS Contamination Coalition. “This is a landmark decision that will save countless lives.”

Colihan also is a leader of Slingshot, an environmental nonprofit helping residents of Fairfield and other communities at risk from forever chemicals. Fairfield has some of Maine’s highest PFAS concentrations. The use of sludge-based agricultural fertilizer there has caused widespread water and soil contamination.

Fairfield residents Lawrence and Penny Higgins learned in 2020 that the well at their home where they have lived for three decades had been contaminated from sludge that had been spread on nearby fields. The first reading: 1,780 parts per trillion for PFOS. Later tests would come back twice as high.

They launched Fairfield Water Concerned Citizens and joined with other PFAS-impacted communities.


“One person alone can not stand up to large polluters and government bureaucracy, but communities can,” Higgins said Wednesday. “We asked for zero PFAS as a target standard in drinking water and we were told it was impossible. Now look how far we have come.”

Sarah Woodbury of Defend Our Health, a Portland environmental nonprofit, applauded the EPA limits on Wednesday, but warned that the $1 billion in funding it promised won’t be enough money to bring all public water supplies into compliance or help rural well owners afford clean water.

The state has adopted laws that require public water systems, landfills, schools, day cares and colleges, among other public facilities, to test for PFAS and treat the water until it falls below the state limits or switch to an alternative water source.

A Defend Our Health analysis of state PFAS data revealed that one in 10 Mainers – or 134,035 people – relies on a public drinking water supply contaminated at levels below Maine’s current PFAS limits, but above what EPA now deems unsafe, including Waterville, Brunswick, Topsham, Augusta and Sanford.

The group’s data show that more than 14,000 students and staff at 60 Maine schools, day cares, and colleges are drinking water that is below Maine’s safe limit but comes in above EPA’s new limit, like the 700 students at Lake Region High School in Naples or the 530 students at Marshwood Middle in Eliot.

Ten mobile home parks also fall into that in-between category, as well as several assisted-living facilities.



Maine is testing for PFAS in the water, fields and food supply where PFAS-laced biosolids were spread in its state-licensed program to redistribute sludge as agricultural fertilizer. The state has paid for water filters in private drinking wells near these sites that test above Maine’s 20 parts per trillion limit.

The Maine DEP did not immediately know how many had tested below Maine’s limit but above the new EPA limit, but a spokesman said Wednesday that all 488 state-funded filters installed to clean water testing above the state’s limit had brought the overall PFAS levels down below the new EPA limit.

The one-time cost of installing a filtration system can run from $3,400 to $15,600, depending on if the system needs to be housed in its own shed, and $5,300 a year to change out the filters four times a year and conduct routine testing to make sure the filtration system is working properly, the DEP said.

The Maine DEP has identified 661 residential wells near former sludge fields, military bases and industrial sites that test above Maine’s now outdated limit, according to Defend Our Health. Sources close to the DEP investigation tell Defend Our Health that the number will likely double under the EPA’s new standard.

Maine farmers with drinking wells that test below the interim state limit but above the federal cap can apply for assistance from the state’s PFAS Relief Fund, a $60 million program created in 2022 to help Maine farmers hurt by state-licensed sludge spreading, according to the fund director, Beth Valentine.


This is the first time the EPA has proposed such limits for PFAS, a group of 15,000 manmade compounds that are now widespread in the environment and expensive to remove from water or contaminated soils. Previously, the EPA had advised but not required a drinking water limit of 70 parts per trillion.

Many of Maine’s other PFAS advisory levels for milk, eggs, beef, crops, hay, fish or game are based on this old 70 parts per trillion federal advisory, which means they were outdated by the state’s own water standard three years before the EPA issued its new drinking water rules.


State officials said they will use the new EPA standard, and the science supporting it, to inform Maine’s assessment of PFAS standards in other substances, but said that would happen “over time,” suggesting that no one should expect Maine’s milk, beef and fish consumption advisories to change any time soon.

“This new standard applies to drinking water only and has no impact on our existing consumption advisories,” said Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Commissioner Judy Camuso. “We look forward to reviewing the science with our partner agencies and engaging with the Federal government as we continually examine our advisories.”

Public water systems will have three years to test for PFAS and two years to comply with the standards.


To help do that, the EPA announced nearly $1 billion in newly available funding through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to help states pay for forever chemical testing and treatment at public water systems. Of that total, Maine expects to receive about $37.5 million.

The Maine Water Environment Association has been waiting for EPA to create its nationwide drinking water standard and called for continued work to lower overall PFAS levels in public water systems, but said compliance will require not just more funding but also a collaboration among all parties.

“These national steps are appreciated,” said Emily Cole Prescott, the association’s president. “However, to obtain the drinking water standards of the new rule will require significant infrastructure investment that will need quantifiable research that brings many stakeholders to the decision-making table.”

The EPA estimated its new PFAS limit could cost up to $1.5 billion annually, but concluded quantifiable health benefits are likely to exceed those costs. But drinking water utilities questioned the analysis, and projected the utilities’ compliance costs at more than $3.8 billion annually.

The $1 billion is supposed to help private well owners facing PFAS contamination, too, but the EPA did not say how that would happen. In Maine, lawmakers set aside funds last year to help low-income Mainers filter PFAS out of their wells. Advocates are now pushing a bill that would help cover testing costs, too.

In total, Maine has dedicated more than $100 million to address PFAS over the last few years.

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