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

“At the end of Joy Road in Fairfield, a steep dead-end road climbs a hillside to a scattering of homes with distant mountain views and some of the higher concentrations of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) the state has found to date in groundwater. The neighbors here live under what one resident, Nathan Saunders, called the ‘cloud of an unknown future,’ fearing how PFAS exposure may erode their health. 

Saunders and his family have lived in their home for more than three decades, drinking the water and irrigating their gardens until a state test for PFAS two years ago revealed appalling levels of these industrial chemicals, which can damage immune systems and harm many organs. An engineer by profession, Saunders charts the monthly test results of the water before it enters the granular activated carbon filtration system the state installed. Over 21 months, the raw water has averaged 14,067 parts per trillion (ppt) of six PFAS compounds, just over 700 times the state’s interim drinking water standard of 20 ppt. 

Across the street lies a former cornfield that received an annual application of what Saunders assumed was manure. It was in fact PFAS-laden sludge, according to the Maine Department of Environmental Protection. The DEP has confirmed that much of the sludge spread in the Fairfield area came from the Kennebec Sanitary Treatment District, which receives significant amounts of industrial wastewater from the Huhtamaki mill in Waterville, a manufacturer of Chinet paper plates, school lunch trays and other food packaging.

The sludge spreading stopped around two decades ago when the cornfield was subdivided into house lots. One of the homes constructed there was purchased early in 2020 by a couple in their early 30s, Ashley and Troy Reny. Later that year, the DEP informed them that their well water contained roughly 1,250 times the state’s standard for the six PFAS compounds tested. 

Concentrated exposure

That news ‘put a huge monkey wrench in our life,’ Troy Reny said. The two of them had gotten engaged and married on the property, and were looking forward to starting a family there. Those plans are on hold indefinitely as they cope with the chronic stress of living on what he terms a ‘dumping ground of poison.’ 

Part of the concern for those living in highly contaminated areas is that PFAS chemicals persist in bodies, dropping by half in blood serum only after a period of years — if exposure falls. If high PFAS levels in the immediate environment keep exposure elevated, the chemicals accumulate faster than the body can excrete them — raising risks of many associated health problems (see graphic). PFAS cross the placenta and enter breast milk so mothers risk passing the compounds they have accumulated on to their children. 

A whole-house water filtration system does little to alleviate the Renys’ concerns about ongoing PFAS exposure. They worry that chemicals persist in their hot water heater, which was not flushed when the filtration system was installed. They drink bottled water, despite the added cost, because they know some PFAS break through as filters age. 

For now, the state is maintaining the water filtration systems it has installed. Troy Reny said he’s pleaded to get filters replaced when any PFAS chemicals break through the final filter, but the DEP follows a set protocol, according to its spokesperson David Madore.

‘Typically, carbon is replaced in the units when the between sample (water sampled between the two filter units) is about 10 ppt,’ he wrote. ‘Data is evaluated on an ongoing basis to ensure that the after-filter system sample is below Maine’s standard of 20 ppt for the sum of six PFAS at all times.’ 

In June, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) decreased its lifetime health advisory level for two of those six PFAS compounds more than a thousandfold, to near zero, leaving the Renys concerned that the state standard is not protective enough. Once their system was installed, Troy Reny observed, ‘we were put on the back burner because this problem is out of control.’ 

Suspecting their soil is contaminated, the Renys grow only a few fruits and vegetables, in planters on their deck. They worry about their dog, who can’t resist lapping at puddles in the yard. Knowing that grass readily takes up PFAS, they fear potential exposure from lawn-mowing. They are concerned about the toxicity of dust in their home, and the everyday products with unlabeled PFAS that could add to their exposure. Non-stick cookware and paper plates are now banished, Ashley Reny said; ‘I don’t want to be supporting those companies that are killing us.’ 

Water testing failed to flag the PFAS

In buying their house, she recalled, ‘we took all the necessary, all the right steps.’ They ordered the state’s recommended water test for residential home sales and the results came back exceptionally clean. The test does not include PFAS, nor are the compounds listed as an add-on option. 

The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) may reconsider its guidance next year, depending on water-testing data submitted by year-end from the state’s community water systems, schools and child care centers. Those results will indicate how frequently ‘elevated PFAS (occur) in drinking water and whether to recommend adding PFAS to the list of chemicals that should be routinely/periodically tested for,’ said CDC spokesperson Robert Long.

Prospective homebuyers face another hurdle, since no labs in Maine analyze water samples for PFAS. Samples collected in Maine are shipped to out-of-state labs that typically provide results in two to three weeks, whereas the allotted time for house inspections is often just one week, said Rebecca Labranche, laboratory director for the state-accredited A&L Laboratory in Auburn. To speed up the response time for all those needing to sample water for PFAS, the state has allocated $3.2 million to help Maine laboratories ‘increase capacity for sample testing and analysis of PFAS,’ Madore wrote, but the first grantees may not be ready to analyze samples for ‘at least a year.’ 

The Renys have considered selling their home, but even with full disclosure of the water contamination, she said, ‘the burden is so great we don’t want to pass it on to someone else.’ They ultimately decided that to ‘stand our ground and deal with the situation is morally the right thing,’ he observed.

But contending with PFAS concerns year after year takes a huge toll; ‘it wears on your mental state a lot,’ Troy Reny said. The peace of mind they once had in this serene, hilltop setting is shattered. 

‘Home is supposed to be your safe place,’ Ashley Reny said. ‘Coming home every day, I don’t know if it’s making me sick.'” …