Adam Nordell and his wife, Johanna Davis, learned last year that the soil and water under their organic vegetable farm in Unity were contaminated with toxic forever chemicals from sewage sludge spread by the truckload in the early 1990s.

After they pulled their produce from the shelves and stopped farming, they learned their bodies, too, had been contaminated.

Blood tests earlier this year showed Nordell and Davis had levels of the chemicals, known collectively as PFAS, that were even higher than the plant workers who produced the noxious substances for decades and handled them day after day, he said.

“We’re out beyond the moon,” Nordell said. “The discovery undercut our lives in just about every way you can imagine.”

On Friday, Nordell was among those in Maine who welcomed the news from federal environmental regulators that two of the chemicals, PFOA and PFOS, may soon be designated hazardous substances by the Environmental Protection Agency. It is the first step in a regulatory process that could unlock millions of dollars to pay for cleanup and remediation and hold polluters accountable for the costs under what is most commonly known as the federal superfund law.

The designation is a landmark development for environmental advocates, who have warned about the long-lasting effects of PFAS compounds, which 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. The EPA designation is the first of a hazardous chemical under the superfund law in roughly 40 years.


Under the proposed rule, companies would need to report when the substances leach into the environment, even in relatively small quantities. The requirements would help public health officials track where the chemicals persist. Federal regulators will not make a final decision for months, and only after a lengthy public comment period and evaluation period that is standard to all federal rule-making procedures.

Maine is among the states that are gradually coming to terms with widespread contamination and the state had already moved to designate all PFAS-related chemicals as hazardous. The expanding crisis has contaminated agricultural fields and drinking wells, closed dairy and vegetable farms because of contaminated products, left some fish and game and poultry eggs unsafe to eat and is now forcing schools and public water districts to install expensive water filters.

Maine is spending $20 million a year to test soil and water around the state and install water filters where needed, focusing first on areas where sewage sludge was spread as fertilizer.

If the proposed federal rule is finalized, the state Department of Environmental Protection will have more latitude to take action with fewer hurdles, said David Madore, deputy commissioner of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, in an emailed statement.

Called forever chemicals because of how long they take to break down, the compounds were prized for their toughness and are still produced in thousands of variants, although research has linked them to a sprawling list of ill effects, from compromised immune and cardiovascular system function, decreased fertility and low birth weights to increased risk for several types of cancer.

Nordell said he has thought about the farmer who sold them their land. He put his lot up for sale after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.


No longer able to safely farm his land, Nordell is now a campaign manager for Defend Our Health, a Maine-based advocacy group that has fought for years for stronger regulatory rules and accountability for the spread of the toxic sludge, usually reaped from wastewater plants, across thousands of acres of Maine farmland.

“It’s a public health problem for people across the country,” Nordell said. “The chemicals have been in active manufacture for over half a century.”

And the science is still evolving. In June, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency warned even the oldest PFAS chemicals can pose significant human health risks even at trace amounts well below what has been considered safe, and even below what can be detected by current technology. The technology for cleaning up contaminated soil and groundwater also is still evolving.

The federal designation means those responsible could be forced to help pay for the response.

“If something is designated as a superfund, first off it allows organizations like the EPA to be able to figure out who the responsible party is for the contamination and to put them on the hook for cleanup,” said Sarah Woodbury, director of advocacy for Defend Our Health. “That’s sort of the main reason to do this.”

There are thousands of PFAS chemicals in production and use, and the EPA’s designation singles out just two of them, Woodbury said. But it’s a start.

“The EPA is still approving new ones when we’re learning about the ill effects of the old ones,” Woodbury said.

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