As late as 2016, the Environmental Protection Agency’s safety threshold for one kind of “forever chemical” was 400 parts per trillion. The next year it was lowered to 70 parts per trillion.

At least 29 wells in the Fairfield area have tested above 70 parts per trillion for PFAS, the EPA’s drinking-water limit. One resident told lawmakers that her well tested above 7,000 parts per trillion, and that she and her neighbors “suffer from a ton of health issues.” Dmitry Naumov/Shutterstock.com

Since then, some states, including Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont, have set their standards at 20 parts per trillion for six types of forever chemicals, with others, like New Jersey, going even lower. Meanwhile, the latest research indicates that may not be low enough.

Clearly, the effort to protect people, particularly young children, from the harmful substances has some catching up to do. As Maine lawmakers review a series of bills on the subject, they should keep that in mind – and avoid setting limits that won’t protect Mainers.

At issue are per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. Used for decades as coatings in consumer products such as nonstick cookware and grease-resistant materials, these “forever chemicals” don’t break down in the environment or the body. Some have been linked to a number of health problems, including cancer, low birth weight, immune suppression and fertility issues.

High levels of PFAS were detected in 2016 at an Arundel farm. The source was municipal sludge, used for decades as a fertilizer and contaminated through the wide use of the industrial chemicals in so many household items. The contamination has found its way into the milk produced at the farm, ruining the farmer’s operation while also affecting the regional water supply.

Even higher levels of PFAS were found at a Fairfield dairy farm last year – perhaps the highest ever recorded in milk. At least 29 wells in the area have tested above 70 parts per trillion, the EPA’s limit for drinking water.

One resident told lawmakers her well tested above 7,000 parts per trillion, and that she and her neighbors “suffer from a ton of health issues.”

The Legislature this session will consider at least seven bills aimed at mitigating the affects of forever chemicals. There is legislation calling for more testing, in order to find trouble spots, and a bond for funding a cleanup program. There are bills discouraging use of the chemicals, and calling for better reporting when manufacturers do include them in their products. Another would extend the period under which victims of contamination can seek legal action.

They are all worthy ideas, many coming out of a task force convened by Gov. Mills in early 2019.

The first hearings on the bills show that one of the few points of contention involves setting a state limit for PFAS concentration. The state now follows the federal limit of 70 parts per trillion.

Two of the bills now under consideration would likely put a lower limit in state statute. Both bills have a starting point of 20 parts per trillion, but differ on how many of the different kinds of forever chemicals are covered under the law, as well as how much input various stakeholders – including industries that use PFAS in their products – would have on the process that sets the limit.

The details get wonky at this point, and the Legislature has plenty of scientific and technical information to wade through.

But as they do that, the Legislature should err on the side of water safety. The standards should be applied broadly to different types of PFAS, as new research is proving every day the damage that forever chemicals of many variations can do.

And a maximum of 20 parts per trillion should be the ceiling. The latest research shows that some PFAS are dangerous at very low levels. Citing studies showing exposure to PFAS in rat subjects causing high rates of pancreatic cancer, the director of the National Institute for Environmental Health Science said the safe level for humans could be as low as 1.0-0.1 parts per trillion.

As a result, New Jersey has instituted limits as low as 13 parts per trillion. Maine should be just as aggressive.

Some will argue that strict standards will be costly to business.

But the real cost here is in the contamination of drinking water and the loss of well-being and livelihood of all those affected.

The Legislature’s goal this session should be to make sure that all those people harmed so far are in some way made whole – and that Maine people moving forward are protected from the dangers of forever chemicals.

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