A small laminated sign at a large children’s fishing pond in Fairfield warns fishermen not to eat their catch, but the sign is unreadable because of winter wear. The fishing holes next to Fairfield’s youth athletic complex on Industrial Drive are believed to be some of the most polluted waters in Maine. Penelope Overton/Staff Writer

FAIRFIELD — Chock-full of forever chemicals, the fishing holes next to Fairfield’s youth athletic complex on Industrial Drive are believed to be some of the most polluted waters in Maine – yet the state still stocks these ponds every year with hatchery-raised brook trout for local children to catch.

The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife said it puts brook trout in the ponds for kids to catch for fun, not for sustenance, and that it warns against eating anything caught from these waters. A fish doesn’t have to be eaten to be enjoyed, said state fisheries director Francis Brautigam.

“In an ideal world, yes, we’d put the fish where there are no health issues, but there’s still a lot we don’t know about PFAS,” Brautigam said. “Consumption advisories are just that, advisories. … Is eating one contaminated fish any worse than eating too much barbecue? People have to use their own judgment.”

But scientists question the department’s decision to stock a water body that it knows is badly contaminated. The state aquatic toxicology unit has concluded that it takes a month for healthy brook trout to absorb enough of one particularly toxic forever chemical to render it unsafe to eat.

“Their data should be taken seriously by officials deciding where to encourage fishing and how to alert the public to the serious health risk,” said Dianne Kopec, a fellow at the University of Maine’s Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions. “Do-not-eat advisories mean what they say.”

The Fairfield ponds are among seven freshwater bodies in Maine stocked with fish even though state-employed toxicologists warn people not to eat them because they likely contain high levels of harmful forever chemicals. Nonstocked fishing holes may be contaminated, too: The majority have not been tested.


The state points to a 2016 angling survey that found only 4% of licensed fishermen eat their catch, but public health advocates worry the state’s decision to keep stocking contaminated waters puts people of lesser means – more likely to depend on fish to feed their families – at greater risk.

“This is super disturbing to me that they are intentionally stocking areas they know are contaminated,” said Sarah Woodbury of Defend Our Health, an environmental watchdog group in Portland. “Folks that depend on fish to feed their families shouldn’t have to be worried about additional contamination.”

But Michelle Flewelling, the Fairfield town manager, said people from the area know not to eat the fish from the athletic complex ponds, even if the warning signs have faded or fallen off the trees. If they’re locals, they’re likely already awash in these chemicals, and they likely already know it.

The town doesn’t have any other major ponds or lakes where local kids can learn to fish, she said. If the state stops stocking the ponds, kids will have to learn to cast their lines from the banks of the Kennebec River, where fast-moving spring currents can sometimes prove dangerous.

“Forever chemicals have done a number on this town,” Flewelling said. “We’ve got the highest numbers in the state, maybe the country. We all know it. It’s no secret. It’s in our drinking water, our ponds, our fields. It’s white noise at this point. We’ve lost so much. Why let it take one more thing from these kids?”

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, are used to make thousands of common household and industrial products resistant to heat, water and grease. They are found almost everywhere: in animals from pandas to polar bears, in the rain, even in our blood.


They eventually wind up in our public water supply and many of our ponds, lakes, rivers and oceans. Some of the PFAS are absorbed by fish, which are then eaten by birds, mammals or people. The strong fluorine-carbon bond means some of these chemicals build up as you move up the food chain.

Of course, forever chemicals aren’t the only toxins in Maine waters. The state has had fish-consumption warnings in place since 1994 because of mercury. The heavy metal used to make many consumer goods becomes airborne as oil, coal or wood is burned and then falls into the rivers and lakes as rain or snow.

High levels of mercury can cause serious neurological and reproductive health problems. However, the most common form of PFAS found in fish is thought to be even worse: The amount a person can absorb daily without posing a health risk is 50 times lower than the form of mercury that builds up in fish.

Even trace amounts of some PFAS can be dangerous to humans, with high exposure linked to infertility and increased high blood pressure in pregnant women, developmental delays in children and low birth weight, increased risk of certain cancers, and weakened immune systems.

The state has sent 1,800 fish culled from 112 locations to labs to be tested for PFAS since 2014. The tests aren’t cheap – each five-fish sample costs about $500. Maine currently tests the fish for 40 different forever chemicals, which is a small fraction of the 15,000 believed to be in production today.

The one found in nearly all fish sampled is perfluorooctane sulfonic acid, or PFOS, a forever chemical once found in 3M’s Scotchgard. It is the one that Maine uses as a chemical marker to set consumption limits for fish, milk and beef, as well as forage grass for dairy cows.


The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention has concluded a weekly fish fillet is safe to eat if tests show it contains less than 3.5 parts per billion, or ppb, of PFOS. It sets monthly or yearly limits if the PFOS levels surpass 7.5, 15 and 30 ppb, and a do-not-eat-at-all advisory once PFOS levels top 60 ppb.

To grasp such small sizes, the U.S. Navy likens parts per billion to one drop out of 500 barrels of water.

Maine has issued consumption advisories for a dozen of its ponds, lakes, streams and rivers, from the Mousam River in Sanford to Durepo Pond in Limestone. The limits vary according to contamination levels: Mousam has a three-trout limit compared with Limestone’s four-trout limit.

Yet the state stocked 11,590 brook trout in seven of these highly polluted water bodies in 2023, stocking reports show. Durepo Pond got the most, with 2,500 8-inch and 13-inch trout. The lower Presumpscot River, where a four-fish-a-year advisory is in place, got the least, with 400 8-inch trout.

Fairfield is home to some of Maine’s highest forever chemical concentrations. The state-licensed use of sludge as an agricultural fertilizer by local farmers has led to contamination of the groundwater, almost 150 privately owned drinking wells, and even the milk produced at two of its dairy farms.

Officials concede that much of that sludge came from the Kennebec Sanitary Treatment District, which accepts industrial wastewater from the Huhtamaki paper mill in Waterville. Huhtamaki makes Chinet paper plates, school lunch trays and drink carriers.


The Fairfield ponds sit next to a tire recycling facility built atop an old farm that used sludge as fertilizer.

Yet reports show the Fairfield ponds got 900 7-, 10- and 12-inch trout in four stockings in the spring and fall of last year. It has already been stocked twice this year, with another 660 10-inch brook trout placed in the ponds in late April and early May.

In 2021, when the state was testing the Fairfield pond water and its fish, scientists found high levels of the six PFAS chemicals Maine uses to determine if water is safe for human consumption. Maine deems water unfit to drink if those six add up to more than 20 parts per trillion, or ppt.

(In Navy terms, one part per trillion is the equivalent of one drop of water in 500,000 barrels of water.)

The ponds had an average PFAS score of 857 ppt in six tests done in the fall of 2021 and spring of 2022. A brook trout pulled from one of the ponds in 2021 had a PFOS level of 296.9 ppb – five times the state’s do-not-eat fish limit of 60 ppb.

State tests show it didn’t take long for the stocked trout to absorb the PFOS from the pond water.


After a week in the pond, the average PFOS concentration in fingerling trout was 39 ppb, putting them into the state’s three-meals-a-year consumption category. After four weeks, the fingerling PFOS levels had climbed to 67 ppb, putting them into the state’s do-not-eat category.

Larger trout fared better, tests show, reaching an average PFOS concentration of 44 ppb after a month.

One of the aquatic toxicology unit scientists said he saw fishermen leaving the Fairfield ponds hauling buckets of fish they’d just caught when he was there sampling the water and the fish for PFAS, despite the state advisories and publicity about PFAS contamination in Fairfield.

But the children fishing here on a recent May afternoon didn’t know the ponds were contaminated or their fish unsafe to eat. The state prints the warning on its website and in the law book given out with fishing licenses. But these ponds are for children, who do not need a permit to fish under state law.

Fairfield told the state it would post warning signs around the ponds, but in May, two weeks after the state had stocked the ponds for the second time this spring, only the permanent metal sign declaring an outdated two-fish limit was legible at the larger and more popular of the two fishing holes.

One laminated 8-by-11 do-not-eat sign remained at the smaller pond, posted too high up on a tree to be read by two 7-year-olds skipping rocks at the pond. A version of the sign was hanging on a birch tree on the banks of the large pond but had been rendered illegible by the rain and snow.


After a reporter asked questions, the town ordered new warning signs to replace the water-logged ones.

Fairfield would like to replace the outdated metal sign with one that includes a PFAS warning, but that’s not a top priority. Town officials worry more about what will happen when the state runs out of funds to maintain the 150 water filtration systems it installed at private homes with contaminated drinking wells.

For now, Fairfield will replace the worn-out or missing do-not-eat notices with new ones when needed.

But some environmental advocates think the situation is unacceptable, even with adequate public warnings.

“A lot of folks know to catch and release in these areas, (but) this is not a reality we need to accept,” said Dana Colihan, a leader of Slingshot, an environmental nonprofit helping residents of Fairfield and other communities at risk from forever chemicals.

People shouldn’t have to choose how much poison they can accept by eating locally caught fish, she said.


But the only calculations being made by the handful of children fishing in these ponds and playing on their birch-lined banks on a recent afternoon were what they’d have to trade in exchange for a friend worming their hook and how dirty they could get before they got in trouble.

Their laughter blended with the lazy pop of softly thrown baseballs hitting still-stiff gloves in the nearby baseball diamond and threatened to drown out the raspy two-note call of the lone mallard that paddled the shaded edge of the larger pond. Sometimes, the mallard is joined by a loon.

Wesley Jandreau, 17, of Waterville, was fishing at the small, PFAS-contaminated pond behind the Industrial Avenue athletic fields in Fairfield on a Friday afternoon in May. He hadn’t caught anything that day, but he said he wasn’t sure he’d keep it even if he did. Only a big fish would be worth the mess, he said. He didn’t know anything about the forever chemical contamination and thought the ponds had a two-fish take limit because of the outdated metal sign in front of the larger pond. Penelope Overton/Staff Writer

“This is probably the best place to fish in the area if you’re a child,” said 17-year-old Wesley Jandreau, of Waterville, who was fishing with his grandma at the smaller pond on a recent Friday. “It’s a pretty place to relax, cast a line and take your mind off the problems of this terrible world.”

He had not caught anything that afternoon. Even if he did reel in a big one, he wasn’t sure if he’d take it home to eat it, but not because of concerns about the water quality – he wasn’t sure he’d want to clean it. When asked about the state’s do-not-eat advisory, he pointed to the outdated metal sign at the big pond.

“The state wouldn’t stock it if the water wasn’t OK, you know?” Jandreau said, casting his line yet again.

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