POLAND — A scientist from the University of Maine tackled one of the more well publicized — but far less understood — issues facing many Mainers: forever chemicals.

Over a dozen people attend an Earth Day discussion about PFAS, sometimes called “forever chemicals,” on Friday at the Excelsior Grange in Poland. Richard Kersbergen, a professor of sustainable dairy and forage systems at the University of Maine, said the state is currently working to test every known site where waste sludge has been applied. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal file

Excelsior Grange hosted the PFAS discussion Friday, with more than a dozen in attendance.

Per- and polyfluorinated substances, commonly referred to as PFAS or “forever chemicals,” are a group of more than 4,000 man-made chemicals commonly found in nonstick and water-resistant surfaces on cookware, clothing, furniture, food packaging and more. “You name it,” said Richard Kersbergen, professor of sustainable dairy and forage systems at UMaine. “If it doesn’t stick, it’s probably got some PFAS in it, or had PFAS in it.”

Although its impact on human health is not yet fully understood, studies indicate PFAS can increase cholesterol levels, decrease the body’s vaccine response, prompt changes in liver enzymes, and elevate an individual’s risk of kidney or testicular cancer.

“They’re forever chemicals because they don’t break down,” he said. “They have a carbon-fluoride bond that’s incredibly strong. There’s lots of research going on as to how to actually destroy PFAS, and that’s the problem. We don’t have good ways to destroy it.”

Kersbergen has been working with the Maine Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to better understand the “root pathway from soil to (feed) to cow, to milk, to child.”


Once the chemical is ingested, it can take a human anywhere from five to 60 years for half of the PFAS in their body to leave, depending on the amount present, Kersbergen said.

Research shows that PFOS, a subgroup of PFAS, has “declined dramatically” in human blood since 2000, when it was first tested for.

“(It’s) a pretty significant decline, so obviously there’s a lot less in our environment in terms of what we’re personally exposed to,” he said.

Animals get rid of PFAS at different rates, he said. Once ingested, PFAS cycles out of dairy cows faster than humans, and even quicker in chickens.

Plants, too, will extract PFAS from soil in different amounts. According to recent research, corn and oats planted in contaminated soil will take up very little PFAS compared to straw, which takes up a significant amount.

“One of our recommendations to farms that have slight contamination (in their soil) is don’t grow grass on there, grow corn silage you need to feed the cows,” Kersbergen said. “What’s even more interesting is that we find very little or none in the corn kernels itself, so it doesn’t go into the grain.”


The type of soil also impacts how much PFAS is taken up by plants.

Most of the concern around PFAS contamination has centered on farms. Beginning in the 1970s, waste sludge from water treatment facilities was spread over farm fields as fertilizer, some which unknowingly contained high concentrations of PFAS. However, not all fields spread with sludge are contaminated by PFAS.

Scientists are beginning to see some correlation between PFAS contamination and the originating water treatment plant, Kersbergen said.

High levels of PFAS have been found on farms and industrial sites across the state since Stoneridge Farm in Arundel was closed in 2016, the first in Maine. As of October 2021, more than 200 water sources in and near Fairfield, a PFAS hotspot, were found to be contaminated.

The state has set aside $30 million in state funding to test more than 500 sludge sites for PFAS contamination and install filtration systems on contaminated water systems. By 2025, the Maine Department of Environmental Protection must test groundwater and soil at all locations with known sludge or septage applications, more than 700 sites, according to Kersbergen’s presentation.

Sites in Auburn, Minot, Lewiston and Leeds have been identified as priorities for testing in Androscoggin County; Albion, Benton, Chelsea and Sidney in Kennebec County; and Canaan, Fairfield and Skowhegan in Somerset County. Each of the priority sites should be tested this year, Kersbergen said.


There are no priority sites located in Franklin or Oxford counties.

The amount of PFAs in products has been reduced — and in some cases, eliminated — as more is learned about the health hazards of the chemicals.

Once widely used in ski waxes, many racing organizations have banned the use of waxes containing PFAS in recent years. In 2021, the Maine Legislature passed a law requiring PFAS to be phased out of all goods by 2030.

Scientists can capture PFAS chemicals in water using granulated activated carbon filters, “but then what do you do with it?” Kersbergen said.

Generally, PFAS contaminated waste has been disposed of in landfills, but this presents its own problems.

There is concern that contaminated water from an Old Town landfill with PFAS-contaminated waste may be leaking into the Penobscot River, he shared.

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