Read the full article by Joe Lawlor (Press Herald)

“Adam Nordell reflected on how the peppers tasted – sweet and crunchy – while standing in what used to be the entrance to a greenhouse at Songbird Farm. Just as flavorful were the tomatoes, cantaloupes, lettuce, spinach, sweet potatoes, and a variety of other produce grown at the Nordells’ now-defunct Unity farm.

‘We ate like kings, except we were getting poisoned,’ the 40-year-old said as he looked down at the greenhouse tarps that now cover the ground and serve only to control weeds. The farm closed in March 2022, shuttered by PFAS contamination in the soil. The Nordells were exposed to the industrial chemicals in their drinking water from the farm’s well and to a lesser extent in the vegetables they grew.

Maine has one of the strictest regulations in the nation for PFAS, a family of durable chemicals used to make stain-resistant fabrics, nonstick cookware, firefighting foam, cosmetics, and other products.

Researchers are still learning about the health effects of exposure to the chemicals. Contamination could cause long-term health problems, including increased risk of kidney or testicular cancer, damage to the liver, high cholesterol, pregnancy complications, lower birth weight in infants, and other potential health risks, research shows.

But while Maine is working on detecting the so-called forever chemicals in the environment and remediating the contamination, thousands of Mainers like the Nordells are left wondering about what long-term exposure is doing to their bodies.

For Nordell, more than a decade of building up the farming business with his wife, Johanna Davis, and their 5-year-old son, Lulu, culminated in the purchase of the Unity farm in 2014.

But it all came to a sudden halt last year.

First tests found high levels of concentrations in their well water, then in some of the crops that they grew. They considered only growing and selling crops that tested for safe levels of PFAS, but the final domino fell in early 2022 when their blood tests showed extremely high levels of the chemicals in their bodies. Even though they were no longer drinking contaminated water, Nordell said it would have been irresponsible to continue working on the farm, breathing in dust from contaminated soil.

‘When you farm, you are immersed in the soil. We basically had to hit the ‘off button’ on our farm,’ said Nordell, who now works as an activist for the Defend Our Health PFAS advocacy group.

Nordell said their family now faces years of uncertainty not knowing how their health is being affected by exposure levels hundreds of times higher than the level considered to be dangerous. He estimates it could take 20 years before PFAS levels in his blood return to safe levels. And some research is now suggesting that no measurable level of the chemicals is safe.

‘It’s so hard to think about the future. Am I going to get sick? Is my wife going to get sick? Is my child going to get sick?’ Nordell said.

It’s a question many more people are asking as new contamination is discovered and as more is learned about the extent of the contamination. And it’s one no one can answer with certainty.

PFAS – per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances – are a large, complex group of synthetic chemicals known as ‘forever chemicals’ because they do not break down well and accumulate in the environment.

During industrial production and application of contaminated fertilizer to farm fields, the chemicals can leach into the environment and get into well-drinking water, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In Maine, wastewater sludge spread on farms for fertilizer over decades caused PFAS chemicals to creep into drinking water supplies, with especially high concentrations in central Maine. Maine now bans the use of sludge as farm fertilizer.

States across the country are confronting the hazard, with notable water contamination in Alabama, West Virginia, New Mexico, Michigan, and Colorado, among others.

In Decatur, Alabama, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2016 concluded that the 3M company, which had used PFAS in its industrial processes, polluted the Tennessee River and contaminated the drinking water supply in eight water districts, leading to numerous lawsuits. In 2021, 3M settled many of the lawsuits for $98 million, and the company has pledged to phase out PFAS in its products by 2025.

The scale of the problem continues to unfold, but the Maine Department of Environmental Protection through April identified 502 private drinking water sites that tested higher than 20 parts per trillion, the current Maine safety standard. In Fairfield, the epicenter of PFAS exposure in Maine, 185 private drinking water sites exceeded the standard. The DEP has tested more than 2,000 sites across the state so far, and when the water exceeds the standard, the state will pay for the filters that remove the chemicals from the drinking water.

Although less likely, PFAS can be in public drinking water supplies as well, including schools. So far, 25 schools in Maine have tested higher than the threshold, but major water supplies – including those serving Greater Portland, Lewiston, Augusta, and Bangor – either did not detect any PFAS or were at levels considered to be safe.

Exactly what is safe is also still not clear.

A proposed federal EPA standard would be stricter than Maine law. While not directly comparable to the Maine standard, it would lower the threshold for two PFAS chemicals to 4 parts per trillion in drinking water supplies, compared with the Maine standard of 20 parts per trillion among six PFAS chemicals. The federal standard is about the lowest level at which modern labs can detect PFAS.

If the EPA adopts the new standard, dozens of the well water and public drinking water sites that are currently below the standard will be considered contaminated. The chemicals can be removed with proper filtering of water systems.”…