UNITY — Adam Nordell reflected on how the peppers tasted – sweet and crunchy – while standing in what used to be the entrance to a greenhouse at Songbird Farm. Just as flavorful were the tomatoes, cantaloupes, lettuce, spinach, sweet potatoes, and a variety of other produce grown at the Nordells’ now-defunct Unity farm.

“We ate like kings, except we were getting poisoned,” the 40-year-old said as he looked down at the greenhouse tarps that now cover the ground and serve only to control weeds. The farm closed in March 2022, shuttered by PFAS contamination in the soil. The Nordells were exposed to the industrial chemicals in their drinking water from the farm’s well and to a lesser extent in the vegetables they grew.

Maine has one of the strictest regulations in the nation for PFAS, a family of durable chemicals used to make stain-resistant fabrics, nonstick cookware, firefighting foam, cosmetics, and other products.

Researchers are still learning about the health effects of exposure to the chemicals. Contamination could cause long-term health problems, including increased risk of kidney or testicular cancer, damage to the liver, high cholesterol, pregnancy complications, lower birth weight in infants, and other potential health risks, research shows.

But while Maine is working on detecting the so-called forever chemicals in the environment and remediating the contamination, thousands of Mainers like the Nordells are left wondering about what long-term exposure is doing to their bodies.

For Nordell, more than a decade of building up the farming business with his wife, Johanna Davis, and their 5-year-old son, Lulu, culminated in the purchase of the Unity farm in 2014.


But it all came to a sudden halt last year.

First tests found high levels of concentrations in their well water, then in some of the crops that they grew. They considered only growing and selling crops that tested for safe levels of PFAS, but the final domino fell in early 2022 when their blood tests showed extremely high levels of the chemicals in their bodies. Even though they were no longer drinking contaminated water, Nordell said it would have been irresponsible to continue working on the farm, breathing in dust from contaminated soil.

“When you farm, you are immersed in the soil. We basically had to hit the ‘off button’ on our farm,” said Nordell, who now works as an activist for the Defend Our Health PFAS advocacy group.

Adam Nordell visits the family farm in Unity that he used to operate with his partner, but after testing for staggeringly high levels of PFAS, he had to shut it down. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Nordell said their family now faces years of uncertainty not knowing how their health is being affected by exposure levels hundreds of times higher than the level considered to be dangerous. He estimates it could take 20 years before PFAS levels in his blood return to safe levels. And some research is now suggesting that no measurable level of the chemicals is safe.

“It’s so hard to think about the future. Am I going to get sick? Is my wife going to get sick? Is my child going to get sick?” Nordell said.

It’s a question many more people are asking as new contamination is discovered and as more is learned about the extent of the contamination. And it’s one no one can answer with certainty.


PFAS – per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances – are a large, complex group of synthetic chemicals known as “forever chemicals” because they do not break down well and accumulate in the environment.

During industrial production and application of contaminated fertilizer to farm fields, the chemicals can leach into the environment and get into well-drinking water, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Adam Nordell visits the old family farm in Unity. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

In Maine, wastewater sludge spread on farms for fertilizer over decades caused PFAS chemicals to creep into drinking water supplies, with especially high concentrations in central Maine. Maine now bans the use of sludge as farm fertilizer.

States across the country are confronting the hazard, with notable water contamination in Alabama, West Virginia, New Mexico, Michigan, and Colorado, among others.

In Decatur, Alabama, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2016 concluded that the 3M company, which had used PFAS in its industrial processes, polluted the Tennessee River and contaminated the drinking water supply in eight water districts, leading to numerous lawsuits. In 2021, 3M settled many of the lawsuits for $98 million, and the company has pledged to phase out PFAS in its products by 2025.

The scale of the problem continues to unfold, but the Maine Department of Environmental Protection through April identified 502 private drinking water sites that tested higher than 20 parts per trillion, the current Maine safety standard. In Fairfield, the epicenter of PFAS exposure in Maine, 185 private drinking water sites exceeded the standard. The DEP has tested more than 2,000 sites across the state so far, and when the water exceeds the standard, the state will pay for the filters that remove the chemicals from the drinking water.


Although less likely, PFAS can be in public drinking water supplies as well, including schools. So far, 25 schools in Maine have tested higher than the threshold, but major water supplies – including those serving Greater Portland, Lewiston, Augusta, and Bangor – either did not detect any PFAS or were at levels considered to be safe.

Exactly what is safe is also still not clear.

A proposed federal EPA standard would be stricter than Maine law. While not directly comparable to the Maine standard, it would lower the threshold for two PFAS chemicals to 4 parts per trillion in drinking water supplies, compared with the Maine standard of 20 parts per trillion among six PFAS chemicals. The federal standard is about the lowest level at which modern labs can detect PFAS.

If the EPA adopts the new standard, dozens of the well water and public drinking water sites that are currently below the standard will be considered contaminated. The chemicals can be removed with proper filtering of water systems.


While implementing new standards should help limit future exposures to PFAS chemicals, it doesn’t change the fact that thousands of people in Maine likely have been exposed to dangerous levels of contamination.


Nathan Saunders of Fairfield said he was exposed for more than 30 years, from a farm field where sludge was spread across the street from his home. The drinking water from his well tested at 740 times greater than the state PFAS standard for safe drinking water.

“What’s better than well water, right?” Saunders said. “I used to bring a thermos of coffee and a liter of water to work every day. I drank that contaminated water every day, and that’s just what I drank at work, not counting what I drank at home.”

The 62-year-old said he tested for more than 2,000 parts per billion in his blood, much higher than the elevated risk of 20 parts per billion in the blood.

“My body has been highly contaminated, beyond measurable amounts,” Saunders said. While he said he is so far not showing signs of illness, it is impossible to know if he will have health impacts in the future.

Saunders has filed a lawsuit against several paper companies accusing them of being a source of PFAS contamination, with PFAS from industrial production getting into wastewater systems that eventually found their way into sludge spread on farm fields. The companies – including Sappi North America in Skowhegan – are contesting the claims.

Nordell said tests showed his blood had about 3,500 parts per billion of PFAS, and his family tested at similar amounts. He said they were sick with various illnesses over the winter, and while he can’t prove it, he believes they are more susceptible to viruses because of the PFAS exposure.



The Maine government has responded to the PFAS crisis by creating the standard, the testing and remediation programs, and also by giving money to farmers who had their operations upended because of contamination.

Nordell said the Maine program provided his family with a year of lost income, which has helped tide them over.

Lawmakers are considering a flurry of additional bills this session to help raise awareness, including paying for blood tests for low-income residents who were exposed to PFAS, requiring landlords to test for PFAS in drinking water, and requiring testing and disclosure of PFAS in real estate transactions.

Sarah Woodbury, director of advocacy for Defend Our Health, said the bills are an attempt to make sure that people know what potential dangers might be lurking on their property and to remove barriers to testing and treatment.

“We want to make sure people have the resources they need,” Woodbury said. “Maine people should be protected now, and everyone deserves safe drinking water.”


Maine also has been issuing warnings on fish and deer consumption in certain parts of the state, depending on the level of PFAS exposure.

Meanwhile, the science of PFAS is evolving, both in terms of impacts on health and potential treatments.

Dr. Rachel Criswell, a family medicine physician in Skowhegan and PFAS researcher, said she is treating between 10 and 20 patients who have been exposed to high levels of PFAS. Criswell said the approach is to do enhanced screenings of cholesterol, the thyroid, testicles, kidneys, and ulcerative colitis. In addition to monitoring people who drank contaminated water, Criswell said she also monitors patients in high-risk population groups, such as firefighters or people who work in factories and airports.

“The risks associated with PFAS are real, but it’s mostly common conditions – conditions we know how to screen for, and we know how to treat,” Criswell said. They also monitor patients’ mental health, because the uncertainty of not knowing whether exposure will lead to later disease is unsettling.

“People have been poisoned without knowing about it, and that takes a toll on people,” Criswell said.

Criswell said research on treatments is ongoing, but scientists are looking at reduced PFAS levels after people donate blood or plasma, based on Australian research, and also whether cholesterol medications could help. So far, the risk of using cholesterol medications outweighs the benefits of possibly reducing PFAS levels.


“The research is evolving. We are still defining what we don’t know,” Criswell said.

Dr. Abby Fleisch, a MaineHealth pediatric endocrinologist, has been studying PFAS for more than a decade and published research with her colleagues that were used by the EPA to devise the new, lower standard. Fleisch’s research includes a longitudinal study of more than 2,000 mothers and their children in the Boston area.

Because the blood samples from the late 1990s and early 2000s were preserved, scientists like Fleisch were able to draw new samples and compare PFAS exposure in mothers and infants over time. Scientists found that high PFAS exposure is associated with lower birth weight, obesity, diabetes, and high cholesterol. A second longitudinal study that Fleisch has worked on focuses on how adults with diabetes and patients with high exposures to PFAS can still see improvement from lifestyle improvements in diet and exercise.

“I’m glad I do what I do,” Fleisch said. “Doing this research is very meaningful and important to me, especially if it leads to helping to protect the people in Maine.”

Dr. Abby Fleisch of MaineHealth is doing important research on PFAS health effects in moms and infants. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Dr. Emily Oken, a professor of population health at Harvard Medical School, has conducted research with Fleisch, and she said the longitudinal studies have been key in understanding PFAS because the harm from exposure doesn’t occur immediately.

“Most chronic diseases and risk factors evolve. Exposures can take years or decades before you see the outcomes,” Oken said.



For Nordell and his family, they are left wondering what will happen in the coming years and decades. Nordell has been plowing his time into advocacy work, but he can’t help but pause and look at what used to be.

Plow lines can be seen in the fields next to his house. They used to grow rye, wheat, and flint corn by the big elm tree. The field where sweet potatoes would have been grown sits next to his house, up until the line of pine trees.

After a hard day working in the fields, the young family would watch the sunset, a stunning view of the rolling hills in the distance.

Their mission was to feed people healthy food and make a living at it.

Instead, they were being poisoned.

“We were just hitting our stride. The forecast for our farm looked great. We were raising a child immersed in the farming culture,” Nordell said. “This has been a total nightmare.”

Correction: This story was updated at 3:39 p.m. on May 14, 2023, to correct Sarah Woodbury’s title. She is director of advocacy for Defend Our Health.

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