Bigelow Laboratory research staff collect sediment samples, which are one of the ways that the laboratory can test for PFAS. Christoph Aeppli photo

Umbrellas, shampoo, and lipstick are just a few common products with high levels of perfluoroalkyl and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. 

Nicknamed “forever chemicals” because they never fully degrade, PFAS compounds are resistant to heat, oil and water. While such agents make life-saving products, such as firefighting foam, effective, exposure has been linked to cancer and birth defects, among other health issues. 

Worse yet, PFAS has made its way into Maine’s tap water. New federal limits on chemical levels in drinking water began June 28, requiring no more than 4 parts per trillion (compared to the state’s prior limit of 20 parts per trillion). 

Enter Bigelow Laboratory, one of the three state-certified research centers offering PFAS testing. 

The lab recently launched new analytical services to test samples of water, sediment, soil and plant and animal tissue using EPA-established methods. Testing extends beyond state agencies and is available to interested stakeholders, such as tribal governments, local nonprofits, and scientific peers looking to leverage the institutes’ expertise. 

“Our goal is to provide Maine residents the data they need to make informed decisions,” said Senior Research Scientist Christoph Aeppli, who is leading the new testing service. “Sometimes, it may seem like there’s no end in sight, but the more we understand how PFAS behaves, the better we can address the problem.”


What are PFAS?

The PFAS family includes over 10,000 synthetic chemicals. But what makes a PFAS a PFAS? It’s the chemical composition, said Aeppli, pointing to Teflon as an example. 

In the 1940s, PFAS debuted one of its first uses as a nonstick agent in Teflon cookware. Its chemical makeup—carbon-fluoride bonds—made it difficult for bacteria or fungi to break, deeming it ideal to manufacturers but destructive to the environment. 

“These chemicals had useful properties,” said Aeppli. “Hence, why they became so common. But now, we’re dealing with the consequences. Today, we rely on two main sources of PFAS: water-repellent treatment (coating on outdoor gear, carpets, and couches) and firefighting foam (an aqueous film that forms on water, creating a barrier between oxygen and the flame).” 

Initially, PFOA and PFOS were used in mass manufacturing. When it became clear they were bad for the environment, they were phased out in 2002 and 2015, respectively. 

“Unfortunately, chemical engineers moved on to the next confound (PFAS), which had similar properties,” said Aeppli. “Regulation is always behind the production, and we’re seeing a classic case of that here.”

Senior Research Scientist Christoph Aeppli, who directs new, state-certified testing services for PFAS at Bigelow Laboratory, uses a liquid chromatography-mass spectrometer in his lab to process samples. Collin Sheehan photo

Why the sudden attention?

Aeppli said PFAS is poorly understood, which he believes to be the core reason for public concern. 


Maine farmers were among the first to sound the alarm when they noticed that the state-licensed sewage sludge they used to fertilize their farms yielded contaminated products. 

“When dairy farmers found high levels of PFAS in their milk, and it turned out their soil was contaminated, that sparked major attention,” recalled Aeppli. “Around the same time, people realized these compounds had spread everywhere – even desolate areas like Antarctica and the Tibetan plateau. There grew this fear around the fact that our risk models for monitoring had failed and a push to do something, fast.” 

Gold-standard PFAS analysis

Although Maine struggles with widespread biosolid sludge issues, the state has been quick to act, which Aeppli views as a ‘public health triumph.’ 

Joining the rank with Katahdin Analytical Services and Maine Laboratories LLC, Bigelow’s new equipment can detect PFAS concentrations equivalent to a pinch of salt in an Olympic-sized pool.  

“This kind of testing is complex,” said Aeppli. “We detect trace amounts, nanograms per gram or parts per trillion. That’s why we offer gold-standard, high-quality analysis to ensure our samples are clear from external contamination.” 

Given the widespread presence of PFAS, lab samples can easily become contaminated. For that reason, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) shepherds a gold-standard qualification known as the best standard practice. It entails quality control parameters through different data collection checkpoints. 


Lobster, for the win

Bigelow Laboratory research staff collect samples on the Maine coast to refine methods for determining the prevalence and types of PFAS chemicals. Bigelow Laboratory photo

Until now, stakeholders have turned to out-of-state labs for PFAS data. 

“We’re looking to fill the gap in local knowledge,” said Aeppli. “Much of the prior data focused on terrestrial environments, like streams or groundwater on farms; these sources flow to the sea. We can better protect Maine’s coastal resources by looking at how PFAS interacts with the marine ecosystem.” 

To understand the evolution of PFAS, Bigelow teamed up with Friends of Casco Bay. The group has monitored the waters for the past 35 years, providing the lab with a time series of essential data. 

Last year, they published a report after collecting more than 150 PFAS samples at 21 sites across the bay. 

“The most surprising thing we saw was that unlike traditional pollutants, common in urban areas, PFAS behaves differently,” said Aeppli. “There are hotspots where you’d least expect them. Ocean samples near Portland aren’t much more contaminated than those in Harpswell. In fact, we’re finding the opposite.” 

Aeppli’s team has found lower levels of PFAS in marine aquaculture compared to freshwater, a win for the lobster industry. His ongoing research seeks to claim that the tides play a role in diluting the pollutants. 


“When we were given the opportunity to partner with Bigelow, we jumped at the chance,” said Heather Kenyon, science associate at Friend of Casco Bay. “One contaminated sample shows you a snapshot in time, whereas multiple samples taken over months on end can help pinpoint possible sources.” 

Filling the gap 

Other than nonprofits, Bigelow also works with private homeowners who want their property tested. 

Anyone interested in PFAS analysis can contact the lab, and team members will delineate the number of samples needed, pricing, and, if necessary, the best mitigation method. 

Some water districts, like Brunswick, have turned to pretreatment options. Others, once they find an issue, are now restoring to known solutions like carbon clean-up systems and reverse osmosis machines. “I’m optimistic,” said Aeppli. “ Sometimes it seems like there’s no end in sight, but my hope is that with more knowledge, we can start to identify the biggest PFAS contributors. Then one by one we can shut them down.”

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