Up until early this year, many Mainers had likely never heard of PFAS.
But when detection of the chemicals on a central Maine farm prompted the owners to cease operations, suddenly PFAS — short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — became part of our collective lexicon.
For many in the state, it’s also created a shared anxiety. As state agencies grapple with the growing reality of just how pervasive the chemicals are in Maine, residents want answers and assurances that steps are being taken to safeguard their health. Though Maine is far ahead of other states in establishing accepted PFAS levels in milk and testing other foods, solid answers are few.
To date, the United States Environmental Protection Agency has not listed PFAS as hazardous waste or substances. Instead, the federal agency has established nationwide drinking water monitoring programs, is developing testing programs, evaluating the scientific data and exploring ways to finance any mitigation efforts.
None of which does anything to help people in Maine who are wondering if they can cook on their non-stick pans, wear their Gore-Tex jackets or buy packaged take-out food, all of which use forever chemicals in their fabrication. Mainers are also wondering about eating food grown in state soils where PFAS may be present or meat and poultry which may have eaten grains grown in PFAS contaminated soil.
According to experts, acknowledging that anxiety goes a long way in dealing with it.
“It’s understandable to feel anxiety around all of the PFAS news mainly because there is still so much we don’t know and this uncertainty can feel scary or frustrating or might make you feel angry,” said Leslie Forstadt, human development specialist with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. “It’s important to acknowledge how you feel about all of the news around PFAS.”
The slow release of information around forever chemicals is frustrating, agreed Caroline Noblet, associate professor of economics at the University of Maine and team member of the Senator George J. Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions PFAS Research Initiative, but said moving too quickly can be damaging.
“I know what we all want is to have information,” Noblet said. “But the science around PFAS is still evolving and sometimes sharing emerging information is more harmful than not.”
Education and self-care are important in managing anxiety to prevent it from becoming a larger mental health issue.
“Stress can also cause fatigue, pain, anxiety, loss of motivation, anger, sadness and trouble sleeping,” she said. “There are strategies to manage stress like talking with others, trying breathing techniques, listening to soothing music and taking care of yourself generally.”
Keeping up to date on the latest, factual information on forever chemicals is also important. Forstadt recommends websites managed by the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, Maine Farmland Trust and the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. All of these sites have pages devoted to forever chemical information.
“From an economic perspective I look at consumers and, as consumers, the best thing is always educating yourself,” Noblet said. “That said, I have not seen a lot out there.”
Among the ways consumers can educate themselves is by carefully reading labels on packaging.
So far, there have been no state requirements to indicate if a food is PFAS-free on labels. However, on foods the state is testing — milk and beef — Noblet said it is safe to assume if it has passed the state’s inspection, it is free of the chemicals.
Work is ongoing in the state. Scientists at the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention are testing foods grown and raised in Maine to determine what, if any, levels of forever chemicals exist in edible portions.
“The state has been really proactive and Maine people should take heart in that,” Noblet said. “PFAS has been around longer than many of us had realized and it’s just now that the science has emerged that can detect it — that is a hopeful thing because now we can test for it.”
The Maine Department of Environmental Protection is actively testing groundwater sites of known PFAS contamination around the state and any resident can request a test of water on their property.
It’s also taking a toll on the people who grow and raise food in Maine and those who take care of its natural resources.
“My work is to talk about stress — and not just PFAS specific issues — and how farmers, homesteaders and land tenders, including those working on the water and Maine’s Indigenous growers, navigate stress,” Fordstadt said. “It’s important to support all of these people as they make many challenging decisions about their futures.”
If you are experiencing severe stress or anxiety, Fordsadt advised calling 211 or the Maine Crisis Hotline at 1-888-568-1112 [Voice] or 711 [Maine Relay] to talk about your concerns.