Maine’s firearms deer season drew to a close Saturday, but before then thousands of local and visiting hunters took the opportunity to commune with nature and their hunting buddies in the woods. The hunting tradition has been passed down through generations of Maine families – an exercise in skill, patience and seized opportunities.
The traditional pastime is not immune from modern worries, however. The discovery of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in white-tail deer has raised concerns that the deer population could become a reservoir for COVID-19. And more recently, a deer consumption advisory in the Fairfield area raised the unsettling specter that free-range venison might be harboring chemicals with long-range health implications.
The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, in conjunction with the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, detected high levels of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in some deer harvested around Fairfield. They advised hunters not to consume deer meat harvested in the area.
PFAS, sometimes referred to as “forever” chemicals because they don’t break down, have been used for decades in a variety of products, including nonstick cookware, clothing, food packaging and firefighting foams. Some of the chemicals have been linked to kidney and testicular cancer, low birth weight, immune suppression and changes in liver enzymes. Scientists are still working to understand the risks PFAS may pose, particularly as they accumulate in the body.
Farmers in Fairfield and surrounding communities once used sludge from paper mills and wastewater plants to fertilize their fields. But they got more than they bargained for in the well-intentioned effort. The sludge contained PFAS, and now so do the local deer.
The problem is unlikely to be isolated. Eight paper companies spread more than 500,000 cubic yards of waste in Maine from 1989 to 2016. Officials have identified hundreds of sites across the state. That can mean lasting effects for the land, water, wildlife and humans.
Fortunately, Maine is being proactive. Legislators this summer passed a law banning PFAS in most products by 2030. The state also has earmarked $30 million for testing, cleanup and water filtration.
There’s also been action at the federal level. In June, U.S. Sen. Susan Collins introduced the No PFAS in Cosmetics Act, which would ban PFAS in makeup, moisturizer and perfume. She and independent Sen. Angus King joined colleagues in calling for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to set PFAS standards in bottled water. Collins also secured $1.6 million in funding for a treatment system at the Anson Madison Sanitary District wastewater treatment facility.
Forever chemicals aren’t going away but doing what we can to mitigate the problem helps preserves Maine’s resources, traditions and the health of its people.