Read the full article by Marina Schauffler (The Maine Monitor)

“Martha Spiess, a retired veterinarian, began testing waters in Brunswick for PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) after hearing news of ‘forever chemicals’ contaminating Maine farms. ‘It felt like tragedy was falling all around me,’ she said.

Spiess first encountered PFAS while growing up in Minnesota where her father, an organic chemist, worked for 3M, a major PFAS manufacturer. In the late 1960s, she recalled, her family received a gift box filled with 3M product samples. As she unpacked the items, her father grabbed the can of Scotchgard (a water-repellent spray with PFAS) and told her, ‘Don’t you ever use this!’ 

The dangers of fluorinated compounds were apparent then, Spiess said. ‘It was something he knew, the lab knew, and I think the company knew. He was angry that they were marketing that,’ she said.

Now Spiess tests waters around the former Brunswick Naval Air Station, looking for evidence of another product with PFAS called AFFF (aqueous film-forming foam, or ‘A-triple-F’) that 3M manufactured from the 1960s until 2000

For decades, hundreds of military bases and airports, and thousands of fire departments across the country used AFFF in training exercises and to combat fires involving combustible liquids. The highly mobile PFAS in the firefighting foam entered groundwater and surface water in many settings, contaminating private wells and public water supplies. 

Sampling done in December 2021 at Pond 3 along the northern side of the Brunswick Naval Air Station showed a marked increase in two PFAS compounds, with the level of one more than doubling over the number recorded three years earlier by the state. Photo by Marina Schauffler.

When the Brunswick & Topsham Water District discovered PFAS chemicals in its well field near the former base, Spiess was not surprised. Water sampling at sites around the former air station had already shown upticks in PFAS levels compared to previous data at those locations.

‘There are no clean samples’

Being highly mobile and more water soluble than traditional pollutants, ‘PFAS distribute mainly through rivers and groundwater,’ said Christoph Aeppli, a senior research scientist with Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in East Boothbay. He is testing blue mussels for 30 PFAS, part of a project to assess how the chemicals move through marine food webs and how long they reside in shellfish. It’s already clear, he said, that many PFAS are ‘taken up by quite a lot of marine organisms, bottom-dwelling ones and those in the water column.’ 

Downstream of where Spiess gathers samples from Mere Brook by the former Naval Air Station, David Page, a retired Bowdoin College biochemistry professor, has tested ribbed mussels for PFAS where that brook empties into the tidal waters of Harpswell Cove. Because mussels remain in one place and filter large volumes of water, they ‘can be used to understand potential human exposure to contaminants,’ Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) biologists wrote in a 2016 report. Mussels can concentrate chemicals, allowing scientists to detect contaminants that might otherwise be below detection limits, the report noted.” …