TRENTON — Concerns over per- or polyfluoroalkyl substances, a group of manmade chemicals commonly referred to as PFAS, have been dominating state headlines, as several bills to address issues of environmental contamination have been passed since last year. Most recently, Maine lawmakers in the House and Senate approved a bill that bans pesticides that contain PFAS by 2030, according to an April 11 report in the Portland Press Herald.
But worries over the compounds, which are found in nearly everything from nonstick cookware to firefighting foam and have been deemed “forever chemicals” due to their inability to easily break down, have been mounting for years, including in nearby Trenton, where a group of residents has formed PFAS Free Trenton (PFT).
Along with raising awareness of the dangers of PFAS, which have been linked to several health issues, including cancer, the organization’s major goal is to provide free well-water testing for residents.
“Our group is trying to work on getting free testing for residents of Trenton,” said Christina Heiniger, spokeswoman for PFT. “We’d also like to figure out where this contamination came from.”
Heiniger explained that PFT has drafted a proposal to present to the town’s Select Board to use funding from the American Rescue Plan Act to purchase 150 well-water tests. The tests run about $250 each, Heiniger said.
If approved and residents can test their water for free, once an unsafe level of the chemicals is found, PFT will refer those residents to the Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), where free remediation efforts are available, Heiniger said.
PFT already has a list of about 100 residents who have indicated they would like to test their water. Those interested in adding their names to the list can contact Heiniger at [email protected] and (207) 460-1243.
The group formed after levels of PFAS were detected at the Trenton Elementary School in 2019. Initially, the levels that were found were below the state’s standards for what level of PFAS contamination is acceptable.
At the time, the state of Maine used the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) lifetime health advisory levels of 70 parts per trillion (ppt) as its standard. Levels at the Trenton school came in at 33.9 ppt, according to a January 2020 report compiled by the Maine PFAS Task Force.
That report, which contained several recommendations for how to address issues going forward, “impacted the 130th Legislature in Maine significantly leading to new legislation and programs which are currently being implemented,” the Maine DEP website reads.
An Act to Investigate Perfluoroalkyl and Polyfluoroalkyl Substance Contamination of Land and Groundwater went into effect last October.
“The law requires DEP to:
- Develop and implement a program to evaluate soil and groundwater for PFAS at locations licensed or permitted to apply sludge or septage prior to 2019.
- Develop and implement a program for the testing of leachate (contaminated liquid that drains from a landfill) that is collected and managed by solid waste landfills for PFAS contamination.
- Establish a Land Application Contaminant Monitoring Fund and obtain money for the fund through assessing annual fees on the handling of sludge or septage.”
Other legislation passed in 2021 set new interim drinking water standards, according to a legislative summary provided by Pierce Atwood LLP. The state’s maximum contaminant level in drinking water is now 20 ppt, down from 70 ppt.
Since the change in acceptable levels, the Trenton school has addressed its own levels, Heiniger said. “The school water is now remediated. It is safe.”
In 2021, after the initial levels at the school were reported, the Portland-based nonprofit organization Defend Our Health provided the town of Trenton with a grant for free well-water testing for homes within 1 mile of the school and nearby airport.
Of the 12 private wells that were tested, five were found to contain PFAS. Two of those five were above the state’s updated standards, Heiniger said.
The group wants to keep working to provide safe drinking water for its Trenton neighbors.
Currently, much of the state’s focus and legislation has been on farming communities and those with sites classified as “Tier 1” by the DEP, due to the PFAS-contaminated sewage sludge that was used for agricultural purposes.
But PFT wants the DEP to expand its focus to eventually include Trenton, which is not listed as a Tier 1 site.
To do that, there needs to be a better understanding of the level of contamination in the town, Heiniger said.
While a potentially daunting problem, Heiniger said the work being done at the state level is encouraging.
“There’s been a lot of progress with the legislation that’s been passed,” she said. But Heiniger notes we may just be seeing the tip of the iceberg with how big of a problem the chemicals could pose.
“They’re everywhere,” Heiniger said. “These chemicals are everywhere.”