PFAS: The Forever Chemicals We Need to Know About

On this episode, we talk with Caroline Noblet, Jean MacRae, Dianne Kopec, and Caleb Goossen about PFAS (Per- and Polyfluorinated Substances) and their effects on the environment, Maine’s efforts to combat it, the public’s understanding of the issue, and how PFAS affects agricultural systems and interstate commerce.

Caroline Noblet’s MPR article: Forever Chemicals Needing Immediate Solutions: Mainers’ Preferences for Addressing PFAS Contamination

Jean Macrae’s MPR article: Estimated Greenhouse Gas Emissions from PFAS Treatment of Maine Drinking Water

Transcript

[00:00:00] Eric Miller: Hello and welcome back to Maine Policy Matters, the official podcast of the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center at the University of Maine, where we discuss the policy matters that are most important to Maine’s people and why Maine policy matters at the local, state, and national levels. My name is Eric Miller, and I’ll be your host.

Join us today as we talk with Caroline Noblet, Jean MacRae, Dianne Kopec, and Caleb Goossen about per and polyfluorinated substances, more commonly known as PFAS, and their effects on the environment, Maine’s efforts to combat it, the public’s understanding of the issue, and how PFAS affects agricultural systems and interstate commerce.

Caroline Noblet is an associate professor in the School of Economics. Her research interests include behavioral and experimental economics with a focus on how people use information to make decisions about the environment. She has been working on PFAS issues since 2020. Noblet has been featured in Maine Policy Review with an article entitled “Forever Chemicals Needing Immediate Solutions, Mainers’ Preferences for Addressing PFAS Contamination”.

Jean Macrae is an associate professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering also at the University of Maine. Her research addresses pollutant abatement, resource recovery from wastes, and materials management. She is affiliated with the Maine Center for Genetics in the Environment. and the Senator George J. Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions, where she is part of two research teams working on PFAS contamination and materials management. McRae has been featured in Maine Policy Review with an article entitled, :Estimated Greenhouse Gas Emissions from PFAS Treatment of Maine Drinking Water”. Diane Kopec is a faculty fellow at the Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions, and has taught in the Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Conservation Biology at the University of Maine. Kopec conducts research on toxic contaminants in wildlife. She was a staff biologist to the Penobscot River Mercury Study and collaborates with staff from the Penobscot Nation to generate species specific information on fish mercury concentrations in waters of the Penobscot Nation. She has collaborated on PFAS studies since 2020.

Caleb Goossen has a bachelor’s degree in plant biology and sustainable agriculture from Hampshire College and a doctorate from the University of Vermont where he studied the fatty acid content of forage crops. He farmed organic vegetables in Vermont for nine years before graduate school. Goossen creates educational materials and provides technical assistance relating to organic growing for commercial and non commercial audiences. He has collaborated with UMaine Cooperative Extension and state agencies to help PFAS affected farmers better understand their management decisions, and published articles on PFAS and their interactions with our agricultural systems.

To give a brief introduction to PFAS for those unaware, they are a group of man-made chemicals that have been used in a variety of products since the 1950s. They are known for their water and stain resistant properties and have been used in products like nonstick cookware, carpets, food packaging, and firefighting foam. The chemicals were first discovered in the late 1930s and were widely used for decades with little knowledge about their potential health risks.

In the 70s, some studies began to raise concerns about the health effects of PFAS. However, it wasn’t until the early 2000s that the full extent of the problem became publicly known. By that time, PFAS had been found in the blood of people all over the world, and it was clear that they are widespread in the environment.

In recent years, there has been a growing movement to reduce the use of PFAS. Some countries have banned or restricted the use of certain PFAS, and many companies are phasing them out of their products. Maine was the first government to prohibit products with intentionally added PFAS. Legislative document 1503 was passed and to be enacted in 2021, containing two major efforts to address PFAS.

The first is section two, which mandates that manufacturers report any products with intentionally added PFAS. This effort was initially set to be effective as of January 1st, 2023, but has been postponed until 2025. The second major effort in LD1503 was 5B, which dictates that a person may not sell, offer for sale, or distribute for sale any product that contains intentionally added PFAS.

Additionally, Section 9 details a plan to develop and implement a program to reduce the presence of PFAS in discharges to air, water, and land by encouraging the use of safer alternatives and the proper management of materials containing PFAS. The state of Maine has also created a number of bills that aid in efforts to address PFAS.

Some of these bills include the testing of fields and landfills, prohibition of spreading sludge on agricultural fields, and compensation for farmers affected by PFAS. However, PFAS are still widely used, and it will take many years to fully address the problem. Facilities that may be sources of PFAS releases to the environment include textile and leather processors, paper mills, metal finishers, wire manufacturers, plating facilities, aviation manufacturers, as well as facilities using surfactants, resins, etc.

Molds, plastics, semiconductors and household products like clothing, carpets, furniture and cookware that degrade and contribute PFAS to municipal waste water streams and household septic systems. And now, on to our discussion about what we know, don’t know, and what to do about PFAS with our panel.

Hello, everyone. Thank you for joining us today, talking about this important topic. Listeners may not know the public health and environmental impacts of PFAS. What do you think are the most important things that people need to know about PFAS health and environmental impacts? Diane, we’ll start with you.

[00:06:06] Dianne Kopec: Very good. Well, one thing I think that it’s important to keep in mind is that PFAS are ubiquitous in the environment.

They were first accidentally discovered in the 1930s. They came into commercial use in the 1950s. So by the early 1960s, Everybody was using non-stick pans like Teflon or stain resistant fabrics on your carpets and on your furniture, like Scotchguard. And then in the 1970s, the manufacturers uh, 3M and DuPont began to find problems with toxicity from these chemicals.

They had thought that they weren’t toxic, they were grandfathered in to Tosca. So that there were no actual toxicity tests done before they came into production. But those initial findings of toxicity were not made public. So it wasn’t until the early 2000s that EPA and the world in general began to realize that these were very persistent chemicals that had toxicity and needed to be addressed.

So that’s really important to know. And the other point is that humans, and we’re always interested first in humans, have really retained PFAS in their system for a very long period of time. PFAS, the ones that we are most concerned about currently, can be short chain or long chain. Maybe Jean can describe that later in more detail, but the long chain PFAS can stay in your body circulating in your blood for three years.

The half life is three years, which means that any PFAS that you may ingest through your food or your drinking water today, half of that will still be in your body if it’s a long chain PFAS. Three years from now. So that means it builds up over time. So those are really important factors to consider.

It’s everywhere in consumer products, and it’s everywhere in our bodies and in the environment. Not only humans are infected, we can talk later about the wildlife concentrations that we’ve identified. So I think that’s real important for folks to know right off.

[00:08:27] Eric Miller: Yeah, thank you for that encompassing background.

Jean do you have something you’d like to add?

[00:08:32] Jean MacRae: Yeah, sure. Um, I guess another thing that’s important to know is that there are thousands of these compounds and we’re really only looking at a few of them. So there’s probably more questions than there are answers really about the scale of this problem.

That said, these are all. compounds that have chemistry that is similar. So there’s a carbon fluorine bond and that is super resistant to destruction by really any method. It’s a strong bond that is super hard to get rid of, which is why they sometimes get called forever chemicals. And since they build up to higher levels over time, Long term exposure to even low levels can reach to levels inside your body where they have toxic impacts.

So, like, really, the problem is people were astonished to find that there are actual health impacts of exposure to these things that are. almost immeasurably small, and it’s because they’re, you know, we’re continually taking them in, and they’re continually building up in our bodies. So that’s really important.

The other thing, just to remember, is that they’re synthetic chemicals, and we’re the only source of them on the planet. So we also can choose not to use them and to find substitutes. So probably the best way to deal with it is to just… Stop making and stop using them and move on to different materials that don’t have chemistry that is going to harm us.

Any, any kind of controversy around this is really, I think, associated with the way that we think about chemicals in the environment. And, you know, it is hard to wrap your head around the idea that something that’s present at a part per trillion in the environment could possibly cause any problem.

Because a part per trillion is like one molecule in every 100 of your cells. Right? So that’s not much. That’s a really small amount, but it is building up. And so that’s where the problem actually is.

[00:10:29] Eric Miller: Yeah.

It’s incredible how something in such small concentration and invisible, um, can have such a, such an impact.

Uh, Caroline, do you have something you’d like to add to this?, the question?

[00:10:40] Caroline Noblet: I think Diane and Jean have given some really great points. And the one thing that I would add is that we’re still learning a lot. So I think it’s really important for people to know that, that certainly the health studies have shown that there are negative health impacts for humans and, and other animals in the environment but we, the science on this is evolving. So you might hear today about certain levels that are, are not okay, or, or doing some behavior that is, or is not okay or safe, but as we learn more, we have to change what we’re doing and what we’re thinking. So I just, I, bear with us and be patient because science is evolving.

[00:11:18] Eric Miller: Yeah. Yeah. It’s early and there’s, there’s so much to learn and it’s very dynamic situation. We’re going to dive into the agricultural impacts a little bit later, but, uh, Caleb, are there any surface level things you’d like to touch on regarding the environmental impacts of PFAS people should know about?

[00:11:34] Caleb Goossen: Well, one thing just to drive a point home, I don’t know that it’s hard to expect anyone to appreciate the nuance that is involved with PFAS as a category, because we are all busy people and we all need to make our mental shortcuts. And so it’s really more than just what we say about one PFAS compound we can’t say definitively about every PFAS compound. And so it’s hard not to lump them together a little bit. But just as an example, I brought up last night in a discussion was that Prozac, a common pharmaceutical, is technically a PFAS compound. And that’s been very well studied and that’s probably not as much of a health concern as many of the PFAS that we’re actually talking about most, most commonly.

[00:12:21] Eric Miller: Thank you. Yeah. There’s a lot of nuance here to cover, which is a lot of the motivation for this episode is to just take on PFAS and discuss what’s out there unknown and what needs to be clarified and where the uncertainties lie. And so how have the science and methods of detecting and mitigating PFAS evolved over time?

And how do these technology affect Maine’s policy options and efforts to reduce PFAS? Uh, Jean, would you mind starting?

[00:12:46] Jean MacRae: Sure. Um, well, just starting out detection of concentrations at really low levels is hard. And environmental samples are really complicated. So there’s plenty of methods out there that can detect PFAS when it’s the only compound that’s in water, say, or in air, but it’s, but that’s never the case in environmental samples.

So, the available methods for detection at these limits is just, it’s limited. There aren’t that many. There’s some methods that basically find a carbon fluorine bond or even just the fluorine and those methods are pretty robust and they’re cheap and they’re relatively easy to do once you have the fancy equipment, but they only give you the total amount of fluorine, and they don’t tell you what form it’s in, and as Caleb just said, the spectrum of possible compounds is large. I think the majority of pharmaceuticals have fluorine in them somewhere, and part of that is to make them not break down in your body while you’re, while you need them. So, it’s complicated, right? You can’t just necessarily use that in an environmental sample and know that you’re measuring PFAS compounds that are going to be harmful. So those sorts of things can act as a screen, which is good, which means that potentially we have methods that can be used to screen materials or compounds or samples, but the methods that really get down to the low levels are ones where you’re separated out all the

[00:14:15] Dianne Kopec: 3M and DuPont began to find problems with toxicity from these chemicals.

They had thought that they weren’t toxic, they were grandfathered in to Tosca so that there were no actual toxicity tests done before they came into production. But those initial findings of toxicity were not made public. So it wasn’t until the early 2000s that EPA and the world in general began to realize that these were very persistent chemicals that had toxicity and needed to be addressed.

So that’s really important to know. And the other point is that humans, and we’re always interested first in humans, have really retained PFAS in their system for a very long period of time. PFAS, the ones that we are most concerned about currently, can be short chain or long chain. Maybe Jean can describe that later in more detail, but the long chain PFAS can stay in your body circulating in your blood for three years.

The half life is three years, which means that any PFAS that you may ingest through your food or your drinking water today, half of that will still be in your body if it’s a long chain PFAS. Three years from now. So that means it builds up over time. So those are really important factors to consider.

It’s everywhere in consumer products, and it’s everywhere in our bodies and in the environment. Not only humans are infected, we can talk later about the wildlife concentrations that we’ve identified. So I think that’s real important for folks to know right off.

[00:16:04] Eric Miller: Yeah, thank you for that encompassing background.

Jean do you have something you’d like to add?

[00:16:08] Jean MacRae: Yeah, sure. I guess another thing that’s important to know is that there are thousands of these compounds and we’re really only looking at a few of them. So there’s probably more questions than there are answers really about the scale of this problem.

That said, these are all compounds that have chemistry that is similar. So there’s a carbon fluorine bond and that is super resistant to destruction by really any method. It’s a strong bond that is super hard to get rid of, which is why they sometimes get called forever chemicals. And since they build up to higher levels over time, Long term exposure to even low levels can reach to levels inside your body where they have toxic impacts.

Really, the problem is people were astonished to find that there are actual health impacts of exposure to these things that are almost immeasurably small, and it’s because they’re, we’re continually taking them in, and they’re continually building up in our bodies. So that’s really important.

The other thing, just to remember, is that they’re synthetic chemicals, and we’re the only source of them on the planet. So we also can choose not to use them and to find substitutes. So probably the best way to deal with it is to just stop making and stop using them and move on to different materials that don’t have chemistry that is going to harm us.

Any kind of controversy around this is really, I think, associated with the way that we think about chemicals in the environment. And, it is hard to wrap your head around the idea that something that’s present at a part per trillion in the environment could possibly cause any problem because a part per trillion is like one molecule in every 100 of your cells. So that’s not much. That’s a really small amount, but it is building up and so that’s where the problem actually is.

[00:18:01] Eric Miller: Yeah. It’s incredible how something in such small concentration and invisible can have such a, such an impact.

Caroline, do you have something you’d like to add to this, ? the question.

[00:18:12] Caroline Noblet: I think Diane and Jean have given some really great points. And the one thing that I would add is that we’re still learning a lot. So I think it’s really important for people to know that certainly the health studies have shown that there are negative health impacts for humans and other animals in the environment.

But we, the science on this is evolving. So you might hear today about certain levels that are not okay or doing some behavior that is, or is not okay or safe, but as we learn more, we have to change what we’re doing and what we’re thinking. So I just, I bear with us and be patient because science is

evolving.

[00:18:48] Eric Miller: Yeah. Yeah. It’s early and there’s so much to learn and it’s very dynamic situation. We’re going to dive into the agricultural impacts a little bit later, but Caleb, are there any surface level things you’d like to touch on regarding the environmental impacts of PFAS people should know about?

[00:19:03] Caleb Goossen: Well, one thing just to drive a point home, I don’t know that it’s hard to expect anyone to appreciate the nuance. That is involved with PFAS as a category, because we are all busy people and we all need to make our mental shortcuts. And so it’s really more than just what we say about one PFAS compound.

We can’t say definitively about every PFAS compound. And so it’s hard not to lump them together a little bit. But just as an example, I brought up last night in a discussion was that Prozac, a common pharmaceutical, is technically a PFAS compound. And that’s been very well studied and that’s probably not as much of a health concern as many of the PFAS that we’re actually talking about most, most commonly.

[00:19:50] Eric Miller: Thank you.

Yeah. There’s a lot of nuance here to cover, which is a lot of the motivation for this episode is to just take on PFAS and discuss what’s out there unknown and what needs to be clarified and where the uncertainties lie. And so how have the science and methods of detecting and mitigating PFAS evolved over time?

And how do these technology affect Maine’s policy options and efforts to reduce PFAS? Jean, would you mind

starting?

[00:20:15] Jean MacRae: Sure. well, just starting out detection of concentrations at really low levels is hard. And environmental samples are… Really complicated. So there’s plenty of methods out there that can detect PFAS when it’s the only compound that’s in water, say, or in air, but it’s, but that’s never the case in environmental samples.

the available methods for detection at these limits is just, it’s limited. There aren’t that many. There’s some methods that basically find a carbon fluorine bond or even just the fluorine and those methods are pretty robust and they’re cheap and they’re relatively easy to do once you have the fancy equipment, but they only give you the total amount of.

Fluorine, and they don’t tell you what form it’s in, and as Caleb just said, the spectrum of possible compounds is large. I think the majority of pharmaceuticals have fluorine in them somewhere, and part of that is to make them not break down in your body while you’re,

while you need them.

it’s complicated, right?

You can’t just necessarily use that in an environmental sample and know that you’re measuring PFAS compounds that are going to be harmful. So those sorts of things can act as a screen, which is good, which means that potentially we have methods that can be used to screen materials or compounds or samples, but the methods that really get down to the low levels are ones where you’re separated out.

All the different compounds using a much more expensive and complicated method. And then you can tell how much of each individual compound there is. So that gives you a better sense of risk and which compounds are present at what concentration. But it’ll cost you several hundred dollars per sample to do this, which means that you can bankrupt a town by telling them they need to monitor their PFAS concentrations in the drinking water every day.

it’s just not going to happen. So it’s. It’s it does stand in the way of monitoring. There’s definitely work happening on how technologies that I’ll probably talk about a little bit later, but it’s just difficult to get your hands around this problem when you’re dealing with so many different compounds with so little known about their individual impacts and the methods that get down to the relevant levels are both expensive and limited in the compounds that we’re actually looking for.

Policy options and our efforts to reduce PFAS are in some way limited by our knowledge of what’s actually out there. So Maine went ahead and set some limits on how much can be in drinking water. Now the drinking water has been tested across the state, which is awesome. We know way more about what’s going on in Maine than people do across the country.

But now there’s plants that need to remove. PFAS to these really low levels and while there are technologies that are available, like activated carbon filters and ion exchange resins, which you can get for under your sink as well as applying at the town scale, they’re effective at removing the material, but they don’t destroy the PFAS.

So they’re concentrating it. And then when you. need to replace the filter that concentrated PFAS contaminated stuff on the inside is going to go to landfill where it’s contained in the short term but over the long term it’s going to still represent a risk. The thing that the state is doing That is going to be really helpful here is trying to limit the amount of PFAS chemicals coming into the state by removing from the market materials that have intentionally added PFAS to them.

So that’s going to help. And I think as the country moves along in our policy and legislation options, and, really considers this issue. More deeply, I think we’re going to end up in a situation where maybe different applications of PFAS or use of PFAS is going to be limited to things that are absolutely necessary, and they’ll be removed from the materials where we can find a substitute.

[00:24:25] Eric Miller: Thank you. very encompassing,

Diane.

[00:24:28] Dianne Kopec: Well,

I think this relates less to policy options, but more to the technologies. What one small point, Jean really covered the question very well. Many of the. Targeted PFAS analyses that are being conducted right now are for the most common PFAS chemicals, the most persistent, like PFOS, and PFOA, P-F-O-A But something to keep in mind is that there’s a whole class of polyfluorinated chemicals, PFAS chemicals, that are considered precursors. So when they get out in the environment, because they have not a fluorine on every carbon, but rather maybe a hydrogen on one of the carbons or an oxygen, they’re not as strong.

So they will eventually break down in the environment into the persistent chemicals. that have nontoxicity So it’s important to look for both, which is why looking for the widest range of PFAS that is possible. Is really useful so that we can anticipate what’s coming down the road as far as the levels of contaminants of the chemicals with the greatest known toxicity.

[00:25:48] Eric Miller: Caleb, from an agricultural perspective, some of the development of technologies of detection and mitigation of PFAS, how does your view on that for the agricultural sector?

[00:25:58] Caleb Goossen:

It’s just like a, all the different municipal water districts can only test so much this, even if the state is doing the testing, they can only test so much.

and farmers who may, there’s only so much profit margin room to do add in new costs. development of cheaper, faster testing is going to really help, but also research that’s moving forward to try to help better understand when does it even matter, when do you actually need to do a test to quantify something, because the levels in a soil the soil is contaminated and to be clear probably most soil is contaminated to some background level just through aerial deposition and natural movement of through wildlife, et cetera. But at what point you get above that, and once you are, you probably don’t need to be retesting that soil every year because you’ll understand what crops you can grow there and what crops you can’t, et cetera.

[00:26:56] Eric Miller: Thank you for the clarification. There’s a lot of ground to cover with these questions and Jean, thank you so much for providing such great detail for the science and technology development regarding PFAS detection. So there are many, are, there’s speculation of a variety of harmful aspects of PFAS what’s known with certainty and what are we still trying to learn more about? Diane, would you mind speaking to that one first?

[00:27:24] Dianne Kopec: Sure thing. So when you’re talking about PFAS toxicity to humans, the first point to keep in mind is that there are multiple ways that humans can be exposed to this class of chemicals. Drinking water is a prime source, and that’s a really big issue here in Maine and certain areas with high PFAS contamination. But you can also have PFAS in your food.

It could have gotten in there from food contact material. Paper that was impregnated with PFAS and that your food was wrapped up in can transfer that PFAS into the food that you eat. Breast milk can transfer PFAS from the mother to the child. So there’s multiple ways to be exposed. There are some, there’s evidence for solid, harmful effects from PFAS.

One of the ones that really sticks out for me is immunological changes, I can get that word out. Especially following exposure to a fetus that’s in utero. There was a study in the Faroe Islands that found that five-year-olds who had two times higher PFAS levels in their blood than others in their community had a 49 percent decrease in their response to vaccines, tetanus and diphtheria, so the children aren’t able to mount the same immune response that their neighbors who had lower PFAS levels in their blood.

And you find this in adults too, that as the PFOA concentration increases in blood, their response to the annual flu vaccine declines. These are known problems, and think about that. We’ve studied humans, this is probably happening in wildlife also. There’s endocrine effects, especially thyroid disease.

This was found in the C8 study of PFOA contaminated drinking water in the region around the DuPont plant in West Virginia. Increased cholesterol levels. That C8 study that was done, well, it was started around 2006, I think, it took till 2012 for the results to come back, found an increased risk of both testicular and kidney cancer in folks that had higher concentrations of PFAS in their blood.

Because PFAS accumulates in the liver, there’s indications that the long chain PFAS have harmful effects on liver function, and then they’re still learning more about the effects of PFAS on the developing fetus and on pregnant women. And there’s some indication that intestinal problems like ulcerative colitis are related to PFAS exposures.

Some studies have found that, others didn’t find a difference. So that more work is being done in that area. So there are known toxic effects resulting from PFAS exposure, and we’re still learning what’s going on. And I think this is why EPA has been lowering the drinking water standard, because they’re recognizing that we still have a lot to learn, but toxicity is known for this class of chemicals.

[00:30:51] Eric Miller: Thank you, Diane. It’s a, it’s amazing. And I applaud the researchers that were able to come to these, get these findings. And then it’s also, and this is the, nerd in me to watch a body of literature build is fun and interesting and vital. Caleb, when it comes to exposure through food, what are some of the things that are known with certainty and things that are still being learned?

[00:31:17] Caleb Goossen: It depends. A classic answer, right? It depends. the average American who’s eating a diverse diet from a diverse source, there are going to be relatively low exposures. As Diane mentioned, your own personal water supply is one of the more important avenues, pathways for exposure, then beyond that, averaging out of everything on a large scale globally, there tend to be more, for lack of a better term, hits, when people are surveying types of food, there tend to be more hits with meat products and seafood products, and this is probably due to a couple of reasons.

One is just that these compounds are funny in that even though they persist for a very long time, they’re also, can be quite mobile. And so they will travel with water and therefore they can get into aquatic ecosystems, build up in the food chain. So when you’re eating either filter feeders, which are lower in the food chain, but in a particularly contaminated water way, then there’s a potential there.

Or, animals that are higher up on the food chain can bioaccumulate. And then for land based meats, it’s probably because one of the big pathways of exposure to agricultural lands is the spreading of biosolids, or also known as sludge, as well as the potential for just other types of industrial or other types of contamination that has occurred throughout the country and the world, often from military bases, airports, things like that with firefighting foam, that can get into sort of large acerages. So sludge is more often going to be applied to forage land. grazing pastures and hay fields again, that can bioaccumulate within an animal. While many of the livestock animals can actually depurate, they can pass these PFAS chemicals a little faster than we can. Not all of them, but many of them. It will still, with constant exposure, it will build up in their bodies over time.

And part of why that is true for livestock, because typically, at least for the ruminants, we’re feeding them on the leafy portion of a plant. To further get into the nitty gritty from the large averaging where there are discrete known contamination issues like what we have known so well here in Maine, unfortunately, these past couple of years where there was a lot of heavily contaminated sludge that was spread on some specific farms that grass had a lot more.

And then, therefore, there was a lot more going into the animals. Similarly, that’s when it gets into vegetables that are sort of human facing produce. It’s the leafy portion of the plant where we tend to see the greatest accumulation occasionally. And so this is again, more, it depends. some root crops can, but other root crops, and this is based both on the type of PFAS present and the type of crop, because our different root crops come from very different plant families, and they may represent pretty different plant anatomy, and that can impact whether PFAS are accumulating in that crop or not. So some root crops, very low concern, even in a heavily contaminated soil. Some root crops, very concerning, and in general, less concerning would be further up the pathway in a plant if you think about from soil up to the fruit and the grain those are typically very low levels, even in contaminated situations.

[00:34:47] Eric Miller: We we love, it depends with the nuance addressed answer on this podcast, Caleb, so it’s very appreciated.

Caroline from your work survey work with consumers, what seems to be the consensus of what’s known and what’s unknown about PFAS?

[00:35:03] Caroline Noblet: interestingly enough, and some of the work that we’ve done with Maine residents, there is a little under a quarter of the people in Maine who say they don’t know about PFAS.

they’ve never heard the term, and even some of the more familiar terms, like Jean brought up the idea of forever chemicals. And so even those terms that we might be familiar with about, a little under a quarter of Maine has not heard of these things. So the fact that folks are unfamiliar with the issue means that they’re at a really different place than some of what we’ve been hearing about, where people are intimately familiar with the issue.

And so I think that is when we talk about certainty and uncertainty, we have really different groups, right? Some people have never even heard of the issue before, and some people it is affecting, their livelihood, their health, their environment. So I guess I’ll leave it there in terms of what’s certain and not, because there’s a whole group of people who are not certain.

That the issue is even happening for them. and so that’s a really different group.

[00:35:57] Eric Miller: It’s fascinating. Jean, do you have anything you’d like to add to the knowns and unknowns and what researchers are trying to figure out still?

[00:36:05] Jean MacRae: I think there’s a lot that’s still unknown, I guess is the bottom line.

One thing that’s interesting, about the food pathway is that there’s a fair bit of evidence showing that people who eat fast food more often have higher levels of PFAS. And I think that’s more related to the packaging than to the actual food, but as a way to minimize your exposure right away, avoiding that kind of packaging and well, I guess it really is the packaging would go a long way to helping people out. So that’s a kind of an interesting food connection, but I guess the only other thing that I would add is that it’s been difficult as an environmental scientist to wrap my head around the idea that these contaminants behave so differently than the other persistent organic chemicals that we think about in the environment.

and Caleb already mentioned that they’re more mobile because they don’t stick to fat and that also means that it accumulates in different places in the organisms that are affected. So we don’t like quite often, in the olden days when you were looking for some chemical that seems to be so much less toxic now, like dioxins. And, PCBs and all the things that are part of the dirty dozen that have been banned because of their horrible impacts. They don’t go to the same places. So PFAS stick to proteins way more than they want to stick to fat. And all the rest of the chemicals will partition into the fat of the animal that it gets into.

So all of that changes the dynamics and the models that we have for figuring out where they’re going to go in the body and what kind of impacts they’re going to have and also figuring out where they’re going to go in the environment and what kind of impacts and treatment methods are different as well.

So that’s one of the particular challenges of these compounds.

[00:37:48] Eric Miller: That’s really fascinating. what are some of the challenges in developing new technologies to treat or mitigate PFAS contamination? Jean, we’ll start with you.

[00:37:58] Jean MacRae: So I already talked a little bit about the issue of having these really low concentrations.

So when you think about the things that we want to treat, like air or water or residuals from a waste processing system, The concentrations that we’re talking about are really low and the material that they’re in is really complicated. So there’s a lot of stuff that gets in the way of proper treatment.

So the tendency is to want to go to something that is just going to destroy everything. And that usually means incineration. The problem with most of the incineration methods. So there’s some of them have oxygen in them, some of them don’t have oxygen in them. If you blast them with enough heat energy, you can break most bonds.

The problem with these methods is that carbon fluorine bond is way stronger than the carbon hydrogen bond we’re usually trying to get rid of in an incineration reaction. So it can produce smaller compounds, but those ones are even more stable. So the likelihood of having emissions coming out of these systems is really high.

So most of the research on these destruction methods look at the loss of the, of say PFOS, the P-F-O-S, the compound that you’re specifically interested in. People will watch the destruction of that compound. But they’re not necessarily finding all the fluorine back again and knowing that it all went to hydrogen fluoride, the mineralized form of fluorine and carbon dioxide and water. Sorry. I’m getting geeky. But the thing to bear in mind is that means that there can be carbon with fluorine associated with it being emitted and they just don’t know. So there’s health effects around hazardous waste incinerators that have been treating PFAS contaminated materials.

it’s fairly clear that something is coming out of them, and the problem is it’s not really known what the bad actors are. There’s a lot of questions remaining in terms of, that is our silver bullet, is to burn things when we don’t know what else to do, and it’s fairly clear that it doesn’t work in this case.

There’s some very interesting work going on. In advanced oxidation processes and some reduction processes where you can use electrodes or you can, add a chemical and get a faster reaction, they tend not to be complete. Again, there’s going to be these byproducts. So there’s big challenges. Tough material to work with.

Really low concentrations are relevant and unknown byproducts. So again, this always pushes me to the idea that we just have to stop making and using them and then, continue to work on how to deal with the 70 years of contamination that we’ve built up.

[00:40:44] Eric Miller: That makes a lot of sense. Does anyone have anything regarding developing new technologies and challenges that they would like to bring up?

[00:40:52] Caleb Goossen: I’ll chime in that I often get questions from people asking about phytoremediation or bioremediation. So phytoremediation being plant, either uptake or change of the chemical of concern, and bioremediation being either bacterial or fungal remediation. some sort of microbial remediation typically of soils is what people are thinking about.

While that is, of course where everybody would like to go, with phytoremediation, there’s the plants aren’t going to be changing most of the PFAS compounds that we’re talking about. Diane had mentioned precursor compounds, and those do get changed. That’s why they’re called precursors because they do get changed by living organisms into other compounds.

But in the case of PFAS, they just turn into the PFAS compounds that we’re concerned about. So it’s not really something that we want to happen, but it’s going to happen anyway. and then in terms of uptake into the plants, there’s lots of work being done on this just in general, understanding how much do different plants take up and in what parts of the plants of various different PFAS compounds in different conditions.

It’s not looking like there’s one great plant species that’s going to accumulate better than any other and it pretty much when you pencil it out, in terms of how what is the actual mass of a specific PFAS compound in the plant tissue over an acre relative to what is the mass that is still left in that soil, 2 million pounds of soil in an acre of kind of what we talked about of the rooting depth of most crops. It’s going to take at a minimum, decades, more likely centuries, of very intensive cropping to pull enough out of that soil to fix the problem. The technologies to address PFAS in general, the ones for soil, are not what you want to do for your soil if you want a healthy soil to grow crops in. They are better with water.

So water can be cleaned, and that will still be important for agriculture, because there are some situations where the soil is not heavily contaminated, but the irrigation water is. And then the idea of bacterial or fungal remediation, there is some nice promising, but very very very early work that just shows that yes, there is some potential for some changes in these compounds and breaking apart.

However, as Jean had mentioned, that carbon fluorine bond is the strongest bond in organic chemistry, strongest single carbon bond, in organic chemistry. The energy that a microbe is going to get from breaking that bond is not really worth the energy that it would expend. So what’s happening is probably external microbial processes.

And so it’s, in other words, it’s happening by accident. And that’s really only going to happen in very specific circumstances. In most agricultural soils, there’s not going to be the right environment. It’s not going to be conducive for that to happen at any great scale at all. It’s going to be hardly noticeable.

maybe someday we’ll be able to optimize uptake into plants. And then the question is, what do you do with those plants? Maybe the two parts go hand in hand. And eventually the plant tissue goes to some sort of mycological is some sort of fungal remediation, but in very controlled circumstances where it would actually be optimized.

In situ- in the soil is probably not a likely solution, unfortunately.

[00:44:26] Eric Miller: Gotcha. Very interesting. And we’ll keep rolling with you, Caleb on the going into the next question. PFAS have greatly affected agricultural inputs in the form of sewage sludge restrictions, crop planting decisions, as well as consumer products, such as milk. What are some of the particularly concerning and less concerning economic repercussions of PFAS? And what are some of the examples of crops that seem to uptake PFAS more so as soil and those that, that do not.

[00:44:55] Caleb Goossen: So we had talked a little previously about the idea that livestock production ruminants is maybe of concern because both the likelihood that sludge is more likely to have been spread on a hay land, forage producing lands. And so the leafy portion of a plant is where the accumulation is going to happen at the greatest level. Because of that bio accumulation potential in an animal, anytime you have bioaccumulation occurring, that makes it more concerning. Again, leafy greens are another potentially concerning area for contaminated vegetable production.

In terms of economics and crop impacts, sludge or septage or biosolids were only ever used in agriculture where margins are very tight because It is a waste product. In our ideal world, it would be clean enough that it could be used again, but it was only been used essentially to help get rid of waste and then have, tried to capture whatever positives we can of recycling the nutrients.

So it’s not the biggest loss in terms of losing that as a fertility source for most farms. Though, it will still be a greater expense for a farmer that maybe has used it previously to no longer be, have it available. There are some concerns about, just as part of the reason it ends up in biosolids is they’re in our bodies already. And so the PFAS are going through. The biosolids of greatest concern are industrially impacted, but still that notion that they have been in production and in our world so much. That also means that they’ve been showing up in compost that’s made with feedstocks other than biosolids. It typically isn’t as high a concentration, but compost can be made from very many different things. And it’s always going to be a, highly variable.

There are some instances where products that used to be marketed as compostable actually contained very high levels of PFAS compounds. I think this is starting to get cleaned up a bit since 2020. There’s been some standards, however, they still, not what we would want them to be, probably. There’s the potential that it’s not going to fix everything. and as any food in the food system is potentially contaminated. Or food has been maybe contaminated from the food contact surfaces like fast food wrappers, if you don’t finish that fast food burger and put it in your compost, there’s maybe some that has come from the wrapper to the food, and then that’s going to add a little bit.

One of the concerns, it’s an opportunity and a concern, is that while Maine is at the forefront of this issue of PFAS contamination, especially as it involves our food system, we are the first state to have enacted any type of regulatory threshold for PFAS in food items. There are updates to those initial thresholds in milk and beef.

There are updates to those ones as well as further thresholds that have been calculated but not yet enacted by the state. And that will, again, keep Maine in the forefront of this issue. No other state in the country is regulating how much P-F-O-S could be in milk or beef. Which is an opportunity for Maine to be pushing this issue and hopefully also creating a framework that other states, and or the federal government can adopt because the thresholds that were calculated for Maine are not Maine specific.

They’re based on national dietary intake data. So just about any other state could adopt those if they wanted to. The trick is that Maine can regulate, so for dairy, as an example, all of our dairies, anybody who has a dairy license, if you are testing above that threshold, you can’t sell that milk. Where this gets tricky is with interstate commerce.

Because some of our dairies don’t sell their milk within the state and it would have been shipped to another state for processing or combining with other milk from other producers and they can’t sell it because they can’t, they don’t have a Maine dairy license. Similarly, a lot of the milk that comes into Maine isn’t produced in Maine.

We can regulate what we can as a state. But that doesn’t fix issues of interstate commerce. And that’s one reason why it would be really helpful if the federal government would maybe start to adopt some of the approach that the Maine state government has adopted.

[00:49:17] Eric Miller: Caroline, from the consumer end and behaviorally, what have you noticed in your research?

[00:49:22] Caroline Noblet: So, Caleb brings up a really great point that Maine has been a leader in testing for PFAS in our food and our water and thinking about how to respond to these tests. the downside of that is as Caleb mentioned, we’re one of the few states to do so, so unfortunately what’s been happening is, whenever the media wants to talk about an example of PFAS impacting farms and impacting the environment, they’re using Maine farms to make their point. And so I think we could pay a little more attention collectively to this idea of consumer confidence in Maine’s food systems. So we know that Maine has been doing the testing, and as Caleb pointed out, if you’re purchasing Maine milk, you know it’s been tested, you know that milk is safe. But because of the way that the media has been speaking, it sounds like, oh my gosh, Maine food is not okay. And so I think that consumers are experiencing a heightened concern about Maine’s food system, which is not of course necessarily warranted.

And that’s going to have huge economic repercussions. Because of the reputation that we’ve had for our products, right? Maine has always been known of having really high quality products. And I think that’s something right now with my colleagues, we are undertaking some national studies to actually think about what type of messaging can we do to help mitigate what’s playing out in the media.

I think another economic repercussion for our state is thinking about, we know that there are some farms that based on our current knowledge and technologies will not be producing food for humans due to PFAS issues, but then what do we do with that land? and the question sort of becomes what is not only the impact for that person who is the owner of that land, but what about their communities?

You’ve now taken this very productive agricultural tax paying farm off of the tax rolls and what happened to the property value of lands that are near a contaminated farm. So these are all economic questions that we don’t have great answers to, but I just wanted to put that on everyone’s radar.

[00:51:30] Caleb Goossen: along the lines of some concerns about land values and tax revenues, of course, some agricultural land is not as high of a tax value for a municipality. There are lands that are under easements, maybe, or conservation easements, and then you have this tricky situation of there’s been a legal process enacted to prevent development on this land.

It’s no longer going to be useful, or at least not easily useful for most forms of agriculture. What can that landowner and the easement holder do at that point, there’s been some situations where a land is in under a conservation easement. And now they’re like, well, we can’t farm. Can we at least do solar panels? Can we do something to not see such a hit? Because for many farmers, their equity in their land and in their farm business and in their equipment and buildings, is their retirement, they don’t have access to 401ks the way a W2 worker does. So it’s, it gets tricky fast.

[00:52:35] Eric Miller: Caroline, in your research, what do, what seems to resonate with people in terms of messaging and understanding PFAS?

[00:52:42] Caroline Noblet: So I think one thing that’s really important is how we name and we talk about PFAS, right? So even in this podcast, we’re all used to using the term PFAS, but we’ve also used the word “forever chemicals” because in some of the work that we’ve done with Maine residents. Forever chemicals is actually more recognized as the term for this class of chemicals, and it helps capture, of course, one of the biggest problems with this group of chemicals about how long they stay around.

So even as researchers, language can really matter in terms of resonating with people. I also think another thing that we’ve seen that really resonates with people in the work that we’ve been doing with Maine residents is, people would like to have a choice about where time and money is invested to better understand this issue.

Folks sort of were asked to pretend that they had an opportunity to allocate money for state funds to address PFAS and people were really interested in treating public water supplies and interestingly pursuing legal recourse against the producers of PFAS. and we know that, of course, some states, including Maine, have thought about that process and helping impacted Maine farmers.

I think this idea of having choice and having a voice and how we address the PFAS issue really resonates with people. And they’re realizing that their neighbors are being impacted by PFAS. And I think that also really resonates with people. It’s not just a big, scary issue. It’s Maine people, and Maine communities are being impacted.

[00:54:13] Eric Miller: Does anyone else have anything they would like to touch on regarding effective strategies to communicate PFAS or forever chemicals to people?

[00:54:23] Jean MacRae: I just feel like the people have different entry points into this issue. It’s so broad and wide ranging that I think you pretty much have to take the angle that the person is interested in.

So it’s in some ways all hands on deck and trying every opportunity to communicate with people as you can, because there are so many ways that we’re affected and so many different ways to approach the issues.

[00:54:47] Eric Miller: Yeah, absolutely. And as we close out is there anything an aspect of a PFAS issue that you’d like to touch on that you find is underappreciated in discourse? Diane, we’ll start with you.

[00:54:58] Dianne Kopec: Excellent. Yeah. As a wildlife biologist, I am really concerned about the exposure of fish and wildlife to PFAS. We have some really encouraging and disturbing news about PFAS levels in Maine fish and in Maine deer and turkeys here in the state. The state has done some really extensive testing looking at PFAS concentrations in freshwater fish and found that there are three areas of the state where consumption advisories, where people are asked not to eat wild fish or to eat limited amounts of wild fish.

One area is up by Limestone by the former Loring Air Force Base. That source of PFAS contamination is from firefighting foam that was used when the air base was active. Another area is in the Fairfield Unity area, where fish have had been found to have PFOS concentrations exceeding 100 parts per billion, whereas the state’s fish tissue action level for PFAS, the level at which it’s considered safe to eat one fish meal a week, is 3. 5 parts per billion. And we have concentrations in fish of 100 to 400 to 500 parts per billion. and that Fairfield Unity area unfortunately became contaminated because of the spreading of wastewater sludge, class B sludge on farm fields.

And then the third area is down in the Sanford area, around the Mousam River. And there you have mixed sources of PFAS. Some from agricultural work, some from wastewater treatment plants, and airports in the area. So folks should, look on the state website for information on where they should be concerned about eating fish. Similarly, PFAS concentrations in white tailed deer and wild turkeys in the Fairfield area right now have a limited area where there’s a do not eat order.

Don’t go hunting there. Don’t eat the deer and the turkeys from this small area of intense contamination. They’re now expanding their testing to other parts of the state to confirm that the wildlife have lower exposures in other areas. So I think it’s important to consider we’re always concerned about human exposure first, that’s our species and we care about our families and our community.

But when you’re talking about contamination over wide areas, such as farm fields, wildlife are also being exposed to, and we need to keep that in mind.

[00:57:54] Eric Miller: Thank you. It’s important. I haven’t heard anything about that when in the news. So appreciate you bringing that to the forefront. Jean, do you have anything you’d like to touch on as a parting thought?

[00:58:04] Jean MacRae: We’ve all sort of touched on the legislature actually stepping forward on this issue. And I think we can feel good about the steps that have been made and the the willingness to take the political hits as well as just the state hits on being the poster child for PFAS across the nation, which has been pretty uncomfortable, but we know more now, which is helpful.

now we can say, don’t eat the deer in the Fairfield area. And there’s places across the country where that just is not known. So I want to just applaud the legislators for actually doing something. I always think we can go faster and farther, They’re awesome for doing what they’ve done.

I think it’s also important for people to understand that there’s ways that they can personally limit their exposures by making good consumer choices, not choosing things that are advertised as stain or water resistant and trying to look carefully and think carefully and maybe, look to sources on the internet for where the environmental working group, ewg. org has a lot of information on PFAS in various consumer products. So people can take that, but, as Mainers, we should also be thinking about where to push our legislators further and how to participate in the process, the extent that we can and are knowledgeable to do so, to encourage them to keep doing the stuff that’s good that they’re doing.

[00:59:25] Eric Miller: Yeah. proud of the state of Maine. Caroline.

[00:59:29] Caroline Noblet: I think that Jean and Diane and Caleb have all like really hit it on the head during this podcast that there’s a lot happening. We’re still learning a lot. And so the none of us like uncertainty, but that is the world we’re living in with PFAS. And as we learn more every day, that can motivate us to continue to take steps individually, be active citizens, push our legislature, folks have mentioned at the federal level. So I think that those are just really important things to keep in mind that we should be proud that Maine has done all these great steps and there’s certainly more work to be done and it’s going to take a little patience as we figure out what’s happening.

[01:00:06] Eric Miller: Thank you. And Caleb, we’ll close out with you.

[01:00:09] Caleb Goossen: I would say to sum it up, just as a member of the general public, don’t panic, but please stay engaged, because just for example, of the compounds that we talk a lot about, PFOS and PFOA, the levels in the average American’s bloodstream are much lower now then they were in the 90s.

There’s already been big steps made, but do please stay engaged because that’s not the case for the folks in the heavily affected areas. And that’s particularly true for farmers, right? Farmers who never would have applied any of this, had they known what was in it. Also farmers who didn’t do the application of it and then the other folks in those communities that live nearby them that are much more heavily impacted and the source of that contamination ultimately came from everybody else, from all of us, going through our bodies, but also through the products that we were buying. And of course, none of us were intending that either. Moving forward doing what we can to further limit that production and keep an eye on how that’s moving forward, will be critical.

Maine’s legislature has passed some groundbreaking laws, but the implementation of several of them has yet to be finalized. So while we are theoretically going to be stopping the sale of all products with intentionally added PFAS, we already know that exceptions are going to have to be made, and what that actually looks like when push comes to shove will change a lot of things, or that will determine how everything ends up.

[01:01:45] Eric Miller: Great, encouraging note to end on and staying engaged is always important. And we hope that this episode is enlightening to people and help clarify things. Thank you all for joining us today. Really appreciate your input and expertise, and thank you so much for joining us.

Thank you for joining us. This is Eric Miller, and I’ll see you next time on Maine Policy Matters, where we’ll be interviewing Edgelynn Venuti and Tori Leavitt, two winners of the 2023 Margaret Chase Smith Library Essay Contest. Our team is made up of Barbara Harrity and Joyce Rumery, co editors of Maine Policy Review.

Jonathan Rubin directs the Policy Center. Thanks to faculty associate Kathryn Swacha, professional writing consultant, Maine Policy Matters intern Nicole LeBlanc, and podcast producer and writer Jayson Heim. Our website can be found in the description of this episode, along with all materials referenced in this episode, a full transcript, and social media links.

Remember to follow the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center on Facebook, Instagram, and Threads, and drop us a direct message to express your support, provide feedback, or let us know what main policy matters to you. Check out ncslibrary.org to learn more about Margaret Chase Smith, the library and museum, and education and public policy.