Public health officials say residents should sharply limit or forgo eating freshwater fish from seven Maine bodies of water because of dangerous levels of forever chemicals.

The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention issued new freshwater fish consumption advisories Thursday for the seven waterbodies based on recently updated recommendations for safe consumption levels of the contaminants known as PFAS.

PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a group of manmade chemicals found in many consumer products and are often used in waterproof coatings. Studies have found exposure to certain PFAS chemicals to be associated with increased risk of kidney and testicular cancer, complications during pregnancy, decreased immune response to vaccines in children, and changes in cholesterol levels and liver and kidney function.

The Maine CDC sets “action levels” or thresholds over which it would consider issuing consumption advisories for contaminants. Previously, the action level for one PFAS known as perfluorooctane sulfonic acid, or PFOS, was set at 34 nanograms per gram of fish. Based on new toxicology data from the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, the CDC lowered that threshold to 3.5 nanograms per gram.

A number of the fish species the Maine Department of Environmental Protection has been testing over the years in lakes and streams near potential PFAS sources are over the new threshold.

The advisories are based on new Maine CDC consumption advice for different levels of PFOS contamination. For fish with 3.5 nanograms of PFOS per gram, it advises eating no more than one meal per week. For fish with 7.5 nanograms of PFOS per gram, it advises eating no more than two meals per month.

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Fish with 15 nanograms of PFOS per gram should be consumed no more than one meal per month; fish with 30 nanograms per gram should be eaten no more than six meals per year, and fish with 60 nanograms per gram no more than three meals per year. It advises never eating fish with more than 60 nanograms of PFOS per gram.

The CDC’s new advisories apply to all fish or certain species of fish in the following water bodies: the Police Athletic League Ponds and Fish Brook in Fairfield, Messalonskee Stream in Oakland and Waterville, Durepo Reservoir and Limestone Stream in Limestone, sections of Mousam River and Estes Pond in Sanford, Unity Pond in Unity, and the lower Presumpscot River from Westbrook to Falmouth.

“As we continue to learn more about the health impacts of PFAS, these advisories reflect the best current science,” Maine CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah said in a statement. “They focus on specific areas where higher levels of these chemicals have been detected.”

Saccarappa Falls in Westbrook. Chance Viles / American Journal

The agency said that fishing in these seven waterbodies is safe when the consumption advisory is followed, as are recreational activities such as swimming, wading, and boating.

Judy Camuso, commissioner of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, said that roughly 360,000 people are licensed to fish in the state, which has over 6,000 lakes and ponds and over 32,000 miles of rivers.

“This limited advisory on seven waterbodies is a responsible step in keeping anglers, their families, and friends healthy,” she said in a statement. “We will continue to work with the CDC and other state agencies in order to keep Mainers, visitors, and our fish and wildlife populations healthy.”

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The Maine CDC also is reviewing data from several other waterbodies where elevated PFOS levels in fish tissue have been found, and determining if more restrictive advisories need to be put in place beyond those already in place for other contaminants.

The statewide mercury advisory, for example, recommends limiting consumption of brook trout and landlocked salmon to one meal per week, and for all other species, two meals per month. For sensitive populations (pregnant and nursing women, women of childbearing age and children under 8), it recommends not eating any freshwater fish caught in Maine, except brook trout and landlocked salmon, which should be consumed no more than once per month. Other advisories exist for pollutants such as PCBs, dioxins and DDT.

The Maine CDC, DEP and Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife are developing plans for additional sampling of fish as part of the state’s ongoing investigation of PFAS in Maine land, water and wildlife.

Gov. Janet Mills convened a PFAS task force in 2019 that developed a number of measures to address PFAS contamination, and the Maine Legislature passed bills that ban the spreading of PFAS-contaminated sludge on land and the use of PFAS in food packaging, as well as extending the statute of limitations for filing PFAS contamination claims. The state also has dedicated $60 million for a PFAS Trust Fund to help impacted farmers and $30 million for PFAS remediation.

More information about the fish consumption advisories is available on the Maine CDC and Maine DEP websites.

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