Lawrence and Penny Higgins were told last year that they could no longer use their well water to drink, cook or give to their backyard hens and other animals because it was contaminated by industrial pollutants known as forever chemicals.

The Fairfield couple had a new water filtration system installed by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection and asked state officials to also check the eggs of their backyard hens to see if they were safe to eat. Sure enough, the results showed that the eggs also had unhealthy levels of PFAS chemicals, which are used in an array of products, from nonstick pans to firefighting foam.

“I was shocked,” said Lawrence Higgins, 68.

The discovery of the chemicals in chicken eggs adds to the growing list of contaminated food or drink items in the Fairfield area: PFAS had already been found in milk from local dairy cows, in well water and in deer meat.

And the finding comes as state officials have identified 33 other Maine communities considered most likely to also have PFAS-contaminated sites similar to the one in Fairfield.


The state already has begun to test for the chemicals in some of the communities, which include Westbrook, Windham, Gorham, Auburn and Skowhegan. Specific testing sites in each community have not been identified, except that they are farm fields where sewage sludge was spread and are within a half mile of homes.

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The backyard chickens had been drinking the same contaminated well water as the Higginses. But follow-up testing indicated that was not the only way the chemicals can get into eggs.

Though chickens that were given filtered water and confined to a coop were later found to have significantly lower levels of PFAS, making the eggs safe to eat, the eggs from a flock of free-range birds continued to show high levels, pointing to a secondary source of contamination, Higgins and state officials said.

“Now they’re concerned about our soil,” Higgins said. “They took some soil and vegetables out of our garden and they’re testing those as well.”

The testing is one example of the state’s growing effort to understand how these chemicals work their way through the ecosystem and into the human body, where they can cause a variety of health problems, including cancer.

USED FOR DECADES

Per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, have been used for decades in a vast array of consumer goods, including nonstick cookware, stain-resistant carpeting and fabrics, waterproof clothing, and grease-resistant food packaging.

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The properties that make PFAS so useful in those high-tech products also mean the chemicals do not readily break down in the environment or the body, leading to the nickname forever chemicals.

Penny Higgins and her husband, Lawrence, hold their silky bantam chickens in a coop at Penny’s Alpaca Farm Store in Fairfield on Tuesday. The chickens’ eggs tested positive for “forever chemicals.” The chickens had been drinking the same contaminated well water as the Higginses, but testing indicated that is not the only way the chemicals can get into eggs. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

State toxicologist Dr. Andy Smith said people shouldn’t overreact to the news of contaminated eggs, or worry about the egg supply. Nor should people think that PFAS chemicals are in all communities, gardens and livestock.

“Everywhere we’ve worked so far are places where this is a known source that’s resulted in water that’s fairly high” in contamination, Smith said. “By far, the first concern is the water exposure to the people drinking the water, and the other exposure pathways are secondary to those.”

Fairfield has been identified as a hotspot, the result of farmers using sludge from paper mills and municipal treatment plants to fertilize their fields. The discovery of elevated levels of PFAS in a random sample of milk in 2020 led investigators to a Fairfield dairy farm that had, at the time, among the highest concentrations of PFAS ever recorded in milk.

And the state recently advised people to not eat venison from deer harvested in the region because of high PFAS levels.

Gov. Janet Mills worked with lawmakers this year to set aside $30 million to address the issue through testing and remediation, including installing water filtration systems and cleaning up sites.

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The Maine DEP established a 17-member team to tackle the issue. The group has now prioritized sites in 34 communities, including Fairfield, to test for PFAS chemicals. They range from Dayton in York County to Presque Isle in Aroostook County.

TIER 1 SITES IDENTIFIED

The sites were identified as Tier 1 targets for testing because the state reviewed licensing records and determined that at least 10,000 cubic yards of sludge had been applied to fields within a half a mile of homes.

In addition to Fairfield, testing is already underway in Leeds, Presque Isle, Chelsea, Unity Township, Benton, Bowdoinham and Knox.

“Test results of the magnitude seen in Fairfield have not been identified in other communities tested to date by DEP,” department spokesperson David Madore said.

In Fairfield, 194 contaminated wells have been identified, meaning they contain more than 20 parts per trillion for one or more of six different PFAS chemicals. Madore said the state is in the process of installing water filtration systems, the cost of which ranges from $8,000 to $24,000 per household. To date, roughly 160 water systems have been installed, he said.

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“Staff anticipate ongoing costs in subsequent years to be in the $5,000 to $7,500 range per household depending on vendor costs and the frequency of maintenance and filter change-outs,” Madore said.

Madore said the state has spent nearly $2.23 million for sampling, filter treatment systems, bottled water and staff time.

The DEP is prioritizing soil and water tests. But the state also is working with homeowners with known contamination to address other questions and concerns, like those expressed by the Higgins family.

Smith, the state toxicologist, said he wasn’t surprised that eggs contained high levels of PFAS, noting that the topic has been researched in Germany and Australia. He was encouraged by the fact that the contamination levels were significantly lowered once the hens began drinking filtered water.

Smith said it’s too soon to draw conclusions about the source of contamination for the free-range birds. While it’s tempting to pin it on the soil, he noted that the Higginses’ artesian well regularly overflows and that could be causing the contamination.

It’s a little bit of a detective story,” Smith said. 

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‘STILL A LOT WE DON’T KNOW’

Smith said that each kind of PFAS chemical known to cause health problems all behave differently, so it’s important to understand each. The information gleaned through additional testing could help farmers with contaminated fields adapt. For example, he said a certain PFAS chemical may be found in meat or dairy, but that same chemical may not affect other crops, like corn.

“We’re learning a lot,” Smith said. “But there’s still a lot we don’t know.”

The moon rises over the barn and chicken coop at Penny’s Alpaca Farm Store next to Route 201, at right, in Fairfield on Tuesday. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

Higgins has lived on Currier Road in Fairfield for the last 28 years. The large farm across has been spreading the sludge for more than 30 years.

Penny Higgins said she has health problems, including high blood pressure and high cholesterol, which the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have identified as being caused by PFAS. But she can’t say for sure they were caused by PFAS.

The Higginses have raised their three children there and now have four grandchildren who live in the area and visit regularly to see them and their alpacas and to get fresh eggs. They worry about the kids’ health, as well as their own.

“It’s heart-wrenching,” Lawrence Higgins said. “There isn’t a day that goes by when we don’t sit here and wonder what will happen to us. Unless you’re actually going through it you don’t know what it’s like.”

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