State officials said they have found high levels of “forever chemicals” in some deer harvested in the Fairfield area and on Tuesday issued a do-not-eat advisory for deer taken in the region.

Map from the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife

Fairfield has been the focal point of state testing for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also known as PFAS. The do-not-eat area includes all of Fairfield, and extends into parts of Waterville, Norridgewock, Skowhegan, Oakland, Smithfield, Clinton and Benton.

The advisory area includes farm fields that have been contaminated by spreading municipal or industrial sludge for fertilizer that contained PFAS. The substances – used in products ranging from non-stick cookware to carpets, food packaging and firefighting foams – are known as “forever chemicals” because they are very slow to break down and can be found in soil, water, plants and animals. These chemicals can increase the risk of certain types of cancer, elevate blood pressure during pregnancy, can cause liver and kidney problems, and can impair the immune system.

The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, working in conjunction with the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said Tuesday that it has detected high levels of PFAS in five of eight deer that were taken in close proximity to fields that had extremely high PFAS levels. Those deer had levels high enough in their meat to warrant a recommendation not to be eaten at more than two or three meals a year.

The advisory area extends 5 miles out from the Ohio Hill Road area because that location was found to have high PFAS levels, and studies have shown deer can travel up to 5 miles during seasonal migration. The Kennebec River is a barrier to deer movements, so the advisory area does not extend east of the river.

Three other deer were tested from fields with lower PFAS levels that were two miles away. While those deer had lower PFAS levels, they were still high enough to warrant a recommendation to be eaten in less than one meal per week. Out of an abundance of caution, the IF&W decided to issue a do-not-eat advisory for all deer in the area of the Fairfield PFAS sites.

“There are very few things that knock me off the rails, but this knocked me sideways,” said David Trahan, executive director for the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine and a former Maine legislator.

His organization represents the interests of more than 8,000 dues-paying members and about 30,000 fish and game club members.

“Obviously our community is concerned because if you can’t harvest deer, then you can’t manage the deer population,” he said. “But, this news goes way beyond deer hunting. It has the potential to affect our food and water sources. It’s a big issue and boy we have to be careful.”

Hunters who have already killed deer in the area should not eat the deer, and instead dispose of them in the trash or landfill, state officials said. Anyone who has already hunted a deer in the advisory area can reach out to the state and the department will offer them an additional deer permit in the 2022 hunting season.

The advisory area includes multiple farm fields. Deer feeding in those fields have ingested the chemicals and now have PFAS in their meat and organs, according to the state. Sludge from paper mills or wastewater treatment plans were applied as fertilizer to those fields. The sludge contained high levels of the “forever chemicals.”

“Recent testing of deer harvested in the area show elevated levels of PFAS in both the meat and liver of deer,” IF&W Commissioner Judy Camuso said in a statement. “We take the elevated levels seriously and advise people not to eat deer that were harvested in these areas.”

More information is available from the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife at 207-287-8000 or [email protected]

Mark Latti, spokesman for the department, said in an email Tuesday night that the state does not yet know how widespread the PFAS contamination could be, raising the possibility that deer harvested in other parts of Maine may be contaminated with the chemical.

“Out of an abundance of caution, we enlarged the Fairfield deer advisory area so that it had easily defined and recognizable borders,” Latti said. “We do not know how widespread the issue is, so we plan to expand our testing in order to determine how widespread this issue is.”

Paper mills have used a lot of PFAS – and in some cases still do – in the coatings that keep grease or liquids from soaking through picnic plates, takeout food containers, pizza boxes, microwave popcorn bags and fast-food wrappers.

According to records compiled by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, which licensed and regulated the land application of sludge, eight paper companies spread more than 500,000 cubic yards of paper mill waste in Maine between 1989 and 2016. That is a conservative and potentially incomplete figure, nor does it include the hundreds of thousands of cubic yards spread by wastewater treatment plants, some of which process paper mill sludge and wastewater.

The findings in Fairfield may represent just the tip of the iceberg as to how widespread PFAS chemicals are in Maine.

State environmental regulators announced in October that they were preparing to launch a statewide investigation to find additional “forever chemical” hot spots stemming from Maine’s decades-long use of municipal sludge and paper mill waste as farm fertilizer.

Earlier this year, the administration of Gov. Janet Mills worked with the Legislature to set aside $30 million to test for the class of chemicals known as PFAS and to install filtration systems on contaminated water systems. The state also will offer assistance to farmers whose land or water is found to harbor unsafe levels of the “forever chemicals” and begin cleaning up sites.

The Maine Department of Environmental Protection began hiring and training 17 new staff members – 11 permanent and six temporary positions – and brought on subcontractors to assist with the mammoth task of sampling and testing. The DEP officials had to decide which of Maine’s 500-plus sludge application sites should get top priority for testing.

David Madore, Deputy Commissioner for the Maine DEP, said in an email Tuesday night that the state agency has identified 34 Tier I sites that will be tested for forever chemicals. On the list made public Tuesday are the towns of Dayton, Gray, South Windham, Westbrook, Auburn, Bowdoinham, Lewiston, Gorham,  Minot and Skowhegan, to name a few. Sampling is already in progress at sites in Benton, Chelsea, Unity Township and Presque Isle, Madore said. The DEP has conducted some limited sampling in Bowdoinham, Knox and Leeds.

Sampling depends on gaining the owner’s permission to access a specific site, Madore explained. He said that the DEP is working closely with the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry to identify sites that are currently being used for the production of agricultural products.

Tier I sites, which are the priority for testing, are those sites where 10,000 cubic yards or more of sludge was applied to the land, where homes are within a half mile of the application site and where PFAS is likely to be present in the sludge based on evaluation of known sources or contributors of wastewater at a given treatment facility. Madore said the DEP has designated four tiers and testing could continue through 2023.

After learning about the PFAS chemicals that were found in deer harvested near Fairfield, Trahan, the sportsman’s alliance executive director, contacted the Maine DEP, which told him more testing of deer will be done in other parts of the state.

Trahan posted the news on SAM’s Facebook page with the headline “devastating news.” The news had been shared by dozens of people late Tuesday with commenters asking if the contamination was confined to the Fairfield area. Trahan said he doubts that there is widespread contamination of deer herds, but he remains confident that the DEP will be able to find out through its testing program.

“This is very sobering news,” he said. “But, I’m not worried that this could be the end of hunting. It could, however, strike fear in people when they are eating wild game.”

Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy contributed to this report.

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