AUGUSTA — A state agriculture official said Wednesday that initial tests of Maine milk for the presence of “forever chemicals” showed “excellent” results, with all the samples testing below the state’s reporting limit for the substances that are causing health concerns nationwide.

But members of a task force acknowledged that additional testing – and a lot more financial resources – will be needed to deal with potential PFAS contamination on farms, in drinking water and in the waste inevitably produced by society.

The Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry collected 26 containers of Maine-produced milk from retail stores around the state as well as samples from three dairy farms. The three farms, none of which was identified, were selected because they had a history of fertilizing their fields with treated sludge, which an Arundel farmer blames for contaminating his fields and his cows with dangerous levels of PFAS.

All of the samples tested below the state’s PFAS “reporting limit” of 50 nanograms/liter and well below the 210 nanograms/liter threshold that the department says make it unsafe for consumption, according to data shared with members of the Maine PFAS Task Force.

Nancy McBrady, director of the department’s Bureau of Agriculture, Food and Rural Resources, said staff were “feeling very good about the milk. But McBrady said the department is still developing a model to better determine when farms should be tested.

She described the initial results as “excellent,” however.

“I am pleased to be able to provide this information,” McBrady said. “I think it provides a nice sense of relief.”

The samples came from seven dairies – Hood, Oakhurst, Lucerne, Houlton Farms, Smiling Hill, Horizon Organic and Garelick – and represented 75 percent of the Maine-produced milk sold in the state, the department said. Their milk is sold under various brands, including Cumberland Farms, Dairy Pure, Great Value, Hannaford, Hood, Horizon Organic, Smiling Hill, Smiley’s, Oakhurst, Lucerne and Houlton Farms.

Health advocates said the initial results were encouraging, but pressed the agriculture department to conduct more testing, particularly of farms that have used sludge as fertilizer.

“We have to be looking at, I think, all raw milk production from Maine dairies, starting in southern Maine because that is where we will find potentially elevated levels,” said Mike Belliveau, executive director of the Environmental Health Strategy Center. “We backed into discovering the Arundel farm situation accidentally and we just need to find out if there are other situations out there. And good news notwithstanding, we don’t know the answer to that today.”

PFAS contamination has emerged as a major issue nationwide, often around manufacturing facilities that used the chemicals or near military bases where firefighters used foam containing PFAS.

Per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances – or PFAS – have been used for decades in nonstick cookware, water- or stain-repellent fabrics, food packaging and firefighting foam. These long-lasting chemicals are increasingly linked to cancer, thyroid disruption and reproductive and immunological changes in lab animals.

The debate in Maine expanded to include dairies after the Kennebunkport, Kennebunk and Wells Water District notified farmer Fred Stone of elevated PFAS levels in water from a district well on his Arundel farm.

Subsequent testing showed PFAS levels in soils that were 42 times higher than “action levels” set by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection. PFAS levels in Stone’s milk, meanwhile, were seven times higher than the state’s cut-off for dairy processors to accept milk.

Stone says the contamination, which he blames on treated sludge supplied by two local sewer districts for use as fertilizer, has ruined his family’s more than 100-year-old business.

Gov. Janet Mills created the PFAS task force in March to delve into the issue and then ordered wastewater treatment facilities to begin testing sludge or compost for PFAS. At the task force’s second meeting, on Wednesday in Augusta, members also received an update on PFAS testing in municipal sludge that was potentially destined to be applied as fertilizer on farm fields.

Consistent with early results, the latest batch of tests showed the vast majority of samples contained PFAS above the state’s “screening concentration” that triggers additional scrutiny from state environmental regulators.

For example, 31 of 35 municipal wastewater treatment facilities exceeded the “screening concentration” for the specific chemical compound called PFOS while 19 of the 35 exceeded the levels for another variety known as PFOA. Similarly, 21 of 23 composting facilities exceeded the concentration levels for PFOA.

David Burns, director of the DEP’s Bureau of Remediation and Waste Management, said exceeding those concentrations doesn’t mean the sludge or compost cannot be applied to land. But it does require additional calculations to ensure the materials would not raise PFAS levels in those soils to unhealthy levels, Burns said.

The prospect of the DEP still allowing land application of sludge with elevated PFAS levels prompted a rebuke from the Environmental Health Strategy Center and the Conservation Law Foundation this week. In a letter to DEP Commissioner Jerry Reid, the two organizations urged the state “to immediately halt the land application of all sludge and compost” that exceeded the screening concentrations.

“It is clear to us that Maine is using outdated science in making its determination of screening values and is far behind other states that are aggressively moving forward to incorporate the latest findings in their regulatory action limits,” the letter says.

The tone of Wednesday’s meeting was collaborative, however, despite what members portrayed as an overwhelming task of deciding how best to direct Maine’s limited resources to the PFAS problem. Further complicating matters, states are waiting for federal guidance on health standards for PFAS.

Although a small sampling, the milk tests provide the first batch of analytical testing for PFAS in milk from around Maine. Previously, all of the publicly disclosed testing had been performed on Stoneridge Farm in Arundel or on a few nearby sites.

DEP staff are compiling records on the use of sludge as fertilizer – also known as “biosolids” – over the past several decades. Burns said records from the department’s regional offices in southern and central Maine have been collected, but it will take more time to gather records from eastern and northern offices.

Burns said the work to gather historic documents is secondary to the testing of “active” sludge application sites. But once they are compiled, the records will be shared with the task force.

Member Norm Labbe, who recently retired after a long career with Kennebunk, Kennebunkport and Wells Water District, urged DEP staff to share the southern Maine data before all of the records have been compiled.

“What happened on that (Arundel) farm happened at other places in the region,” Labbe said. “And if you were analyze some of those, it would give us a lot more information to know where to put our priorities down the road.”