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Apr. 13—The federal government's former top toxicologist testified Tuesday in support of setting tougher limits in Maine on so-called "forever chemicals" in drinking water, but cautioned the state may want to be even more aggressive.
Maine lawmakers are considering nearly a dozen bills seeking to address growing concerns about contamination with PFAS, a class of widely used industrial chemicals that have been linked to health problems. Frustrated by slow federal action, groups are pushing for Maine to join a handful of other states — including Massachusetts and Vermont — in setting an aggressive health standard in drinking water of 20 parts per trillion of six types of PFAS.
Dr. Linda Birnbaum, a former director of the National Institutes of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Toxicology Program, told lawmakers on Tuesday that the proposed 20 parts per trillion is better than the current federal advisory level of 70 parts per trillion.
But Birnbaum, who retired in 2019 but continues to lead a laboratory studying PFAS toxicology, told members of the Legislature's Health and Human Services Committee that there is sufficient evidence to support regulating more than just the six compounds listed in the bill. Thousands of varieties of PFAS are used in everything from cookware and textiles to microwave popcorn bags and firefighting foam.
"The bottom line is, as we start to study them, they are all doing the exact same things in our body," said Birnbaum, a scholar in residence at Duke University in North Carolina. "They are all highly persistent. As you know, these are 'forever chemicals' and they are not going to leave our environment."
Per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, have been used since the 1940s. But they have been dubbed "forever chemicals" by critics because the strong chemical bonds that are so useful in creating water- or grease-resistant products also prevent PFAS from readily breaking down in the environment or body.
Some types of PFAS have been linked to cancer, low birth weight, high cholesterol, kidney problems, immune suppression and changes to fertility and reproductivity. While chemical manufacturers say newer versions of PFAS are safer, health and environmental groups contend the lesser-studied, newer variants could be equally problematic.
In addition to setting a stricter health standard for drinking water, Maine lawmakers are also considering bills to phase out the use of PFAS in firefighting foam, to give state regulators more tools to force polluters to pay for cleanup costs, and to extend the statute of limitations for property owners to sue over contamination.
The debate in Augusta comes as Maine environmental regulators are expanding the scope of what is already the state's worst PFAS hotspot in Fairfield.
At least 61 private wells in the Central Maine town have elevated levels of PFAS, with some wells measuring more than 350 times the federal health standard of 70 parts per trillion. The contamination in Fairfield is believed to be linked to treated sludge that was spread on local farm fields as fertilizer, a common practice in Maine and across the country.
The Maine Department of Environmental Protection recently collected samples from 40 additional private wells in Unity and Benton because of their proximity to fields also fertilized with sludge, or "biosolids," from the same source.
Maine DEP Deputy Commissioner David Madore said results for the 28 Benton wells were still pending but four of the 12 wells tested in Unity had PFAS levels exceeding 70 parts per trillion. Those levels ranged from a low of 130 to a high of 29,223 parts per trillion — approximately 418 times higher than the federal level.
The bill discussed Tuesday, L.D. 1388, would bypass the normal regulatory and rulemaking process to set a "maximum contaminant level" at 20 parts per trillion. That cap would apply to the sum of six common types of the chemical, including two varieties, PFOS and PFOA, that can no longer be used in manufacturing in the U.S. but that are pervasive in the environment.
The bill by Rep. Bill Pluecker, I-Warren, would also require several thousand large and small water systems in Maine to test for all varieties of PFAS currently available through a federal testing method by Dec. 31, 2022. Water systems testing above 20 parts per trillion will be required to install costly treatment systems to bring the levels below that threshold.
"Unfortunately, the contamination is already affecting the state's water supply, and it's an issue that we will be facing for years and decades to come," Pluecker said. "We cannot afford to let the issue continue without a proper diagnosis because the health effects will spread, causing us even more extensive costs in the years to come."
Another bill, L.D. 164, would also cap levels at 20 parts per trillion but is less specific on what happens when that level is exceeded and does not explicitly require testing for all PFAS varieties. A third bill sponsored by the Maine DEP and the Mills administration, L.D. 129, would establish a 20 parts per trillion threshold only for PFOS and PFOA. But the governor's bill would adopt the cumulative 70 parts per trillion limit for five compounds until state regulators come up with their own standard following a rulemaking process.
Amy Lachance, director of the Drinking Water Program at the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said the agency disagrees with setting a cumulative limit of 20 parts per trillion for the six compounds because there is not conclusive evidence to support it.
"The department believes there must be flexibility in the rulemaking process to utilize the best science available, including the ability to set individual limits for each PFAS compound based on their unique toxicity, as several other states have done," Lachance said.
The bill was opposed by the Maine Water Utilities Association, whose representative said the state's health and environmental experts should be allowed to come up with the best standard rather than have that limit chosen by the Legislature. A representative for smaller utilities cautioned that testing costs would quickly add up and that treatment systems could become "an incredible burden."
"We have spoken before that (chemical) producers should be the one to pay for this remediation," said Bradley Sawyer, representing the Maine Rural Water Association. "Legislation like this will essentially choose communities that will be on the hook for millions of dollars in bills that the state or federal government have not provided funding for."
Bill supporters argued, however, that Maine needs to join other states in being proactive and aggressive.
"I understand that the toxicologists at Maine (CDC) want to crank all of the numbers, but what that does is delay," Birnbaum said.
Dr. Lani Graham, a physician who served on the state's PFAS Task Force, said it makes sense to move ahead "in the absence of federal leadership" and called a 20 parts per trillion limit "well-reasoned toxicologically."
"And it does not place Maine in the frightening position of having drinking water as being labeled as fine in Maine, but toxic in Massachusetts or Vermont," said Graham, who was representing the Maine Medical Association.
Sara Woodbury, director of advocacy for the organization Defend Our Health, said "there is no need to reinvent the wheel" in repeating studies conducted by other states. Woodbury said there are now multiple instances of families whose water would be considered unsafe at 20 parts per trillion but safe under the DEP's interim recommendation of 70 parts per trillion.
"This is not a theoretical debate," Woodbury said. "Actual people are directly impacted."
The committee will schedule a work session later to debate the three bills and vote on whether to recommend passage to the full Legislature.