The Maine Department of Environmental Protection has a tough road ahead in identifying land and groundwater contaminated with PFAS, also known as “forever chemicals.”

Unhealthy levels have turned up in the milk in a York County dairy, eggs from a farm in Farmington, venison from deer harvested in the Fairfield area and in the soils and wells near fields where municipal sludge was spread under the terms  of contracts that go back as far as the 1970s.

Inspectors have identified more than 700 licensed sites around the state. Once contaminated, there’s little landowners can do to limit exposure to the industrial compounds used in products like nonstick cookware and rain gear.

While that testing is ongoing, Maine needs to stop spreading sludge that could make a bad situation worse. But it is still legal to put treated sewage sludge on farmland without testing it for PFAS contamination.

A bill now before the Legislature, LD 1911, aims to stop that next year. Since we still don’t know the extent to which Maine’s farmland and groundwater have already been contaminated, and we are still learning the health risks posed by even low-level exposure to the forever chemicals, it makes sense to stop adding to the problem.

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a group of chemicals that don’t break down once introduced to air, land, water or human bodies. According to testimony in Augusta by Rebecca Boulos of the Maine Public Health Association, PFAS exposure may alter metabolisms, increase the risk of obesity, affect fertility and fetal weight and reduce not only the effectiveness of vaccines but also the ability to resist infectious diseases.

In 2019, DEP halted the spread of sludge unless it tested below established levels. But since the compounds don’t break down and contamination builds up over time, what look like safe levels now could become dangerous later. It’s also legal to send contaminated sludge to composting facilities, where it can be combined with clean organic material and then sold to farmers as fertilizer.

LD 1911 would close both loopholes and keep at least this aspect of PFAS contamination from getting worse.

PFAS are found in most industrial settings. One of the challenges of testing for their presence is that you can find the chemicals in the hoses, cases and linings of most traditional water testing equipment. To test for PFAS, those parts have to be replaced by PFAS-free components and the equipment can be used only for PFAS testing.

Stopping the disposal of sludge creates a serious problem for wastewater treatment facilities, which depend on spreading biosoils to keep up with the treatment process.

But given the unknown scope of the problem and the limited resources available for finding out, Maine should find a safer way to dispose of sludge. The Legislature should not wait any longer to stop spreading forever chemicals.

Reprinted from The Portland Press Herald.

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