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Toxic discovery: Wildlife contaminated with PFAS found in Maine

5 deer in the Fairfield area of Maine tested positive for PFAS (Photo: Larry Deal)
5 deer in the Fairfield area of Maine tested positive for PFAS (Photo: Larry Deal)
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AUGUSTA, Maine (TND) — There are new developments when it comes to toxic "forever chemicals" in the environment. Wildlife has now tested positive for per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances, better-known as PFAS, revealing just how widespread the contamination may be, and it's raising new concerns about the potential impact on people. PFAS are chemicals that are resistant to heat, oil, stains, grease and water.

The state of Maine is known for its landscapes, from cliff-lined beaches to rolling rivers and sprawling forests. It's a popular destination for hunting and fishing, earning the state its nickname of "Vacationland."

But a recent toxic discovery revealed a new chapter in a growing environmental crisis. This past fall, five deer sampled in Fairfield, just outside of Augusta, tested positive for PFAS, also known as "forever chemicals."

Those chemicals have been linked to cancer and other health problems in people. The contaminated deer prompted a 'Do Not Eat' advisory for meat harvested in Fairfield and the surrounding area.

David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine called the discovery "devastating."

When I found out personally about the PFAS contamination, I was shattered," Trahan told Inside Your World Investigates. "If it's in the deer, it's in everything else."

Trahan has been tracking the developments closely, telling us that because the deer forage on the edges of fields and forests, the contamination is likely in the soil, where food consumed by people is grown.

The culprit is believed to be biosolids, which are sludge from sewage waste that's widely used as fertilizer. It can contain PFAS, which is absorbed in the soil, contaminating wildlife, livestock and agriculture. As Inside Your World Investigates first reported in 2020, PFAS contamination has forced several farms in Maine to close down, destroying the livelihood of families who depend on their crops and livestock.

"We have this magnificent environment yet here we are talking about hundreds of thousands of tons of sludge with pollutants in it that were spread on those very fields," said Trahan.

Now, there's new evidence that PFAS contamination from biosolids may be more widespread than we thought. A new report from the Environmental Working Group reveals that 5% of all crop fields may be using sewage sludge as fertilizer.

Sydney Evans, a science analyst with the organization, told us that if PFAS in biosolids is as common as it appears, "forever chemicals" could be contaminating nearly 20 million acres of US cropland.

Our investigation found several states, including New Hampshire, Vermont, and Michigan, have already identified PFAS in biosolids used on their land. But there's a patchwork of rules when it comes to addressing the problem.

Evans told us some states require testing, while others are on the verge of banning PFAS in biosolids altogether.

I think the question is really why it's a state's issue at all at this point," Evans said. "This affects everyone and it doesn't stop at the borders."

For now, there are no national limits on PFAS contamination in biosolids. The EPA is working on setting federal standards, but an assessment is not expected until at least winter 2024.

Evans would like to see quicker action, telling us that while there are still unknowns when it comes to the dangers of PFAS, taking action now is important. "We always need more information, but in order to take action, we can start with what we have," she said. "I think we know plenty to say that this is a problem it's only going to get worse if we don't take steps to address it."

In the meantime, Maine is taking action. Officials imposed a limit on PFAS in biosolids, with a full ban on the sludge now being considered.

Another key component is increased testing of wildlife to get a better measure of where contamination persists. Contaminated fish and deer have also been found in Michigan, but many states have not taken the step to examine wildlife.

Inside Your World Investigates sat down with Nate Webb, wildlife division director at the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. He told us the department has launched an ongoing effort to boost resources for wildlife testing.

There's only a handful of labs in the country that are available to us to send wildlife samples to, and the cost is extremely expensive," Webb told us. "So there's a lot of effort to increase the testing capacity, and that'll be critical to understand this issue."

As Maine finds itself at the unfortunate forefront of an emerging nationwide problem, David Trahan believes the state will emerge as a leader, and he's hopeful that others will follow their blueprint.

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"I'm often told that people don't get involved until the wolf's at the door," Trahan said. "Well, the wolf's at the door, you just haven't opened it yet."

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