A group of researchers and students from Friends of Casco Bay test the waters for microplastics in 2016
A group of researchers and students from Friends of Casco Bay test the waters for microplastics in 2016. (Courtesy Friends of Casco Bay)
advertisementSmiley face

Researchers will begin regularly testing local Casco Bay waters for the presence of PFAS in an effort to learn more about the presence of toxic forever chemicals in Maine’s ocean.

The Friends of Casco Bay, a volunteer-based organization that conducts seasonal water quality testing and other maintenance on Portland-based waters, are partnering with the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences, a nonprofit research institute in East Boothbay, to incorporate PFAS into their regular testing.

The Friends of Casco Bay have a dataset from over 30 years of monitoring the bay’s health, which encapsulates temperature, dissolved oxygen, pH, nitrogen, water clarity, salinity and plankton presence and conduct their testing at 20 different locations in the Casco Bay.

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, are a group of long lasting, synthetic chemical compounds. While being used or manufactured, PFAS can get into the air, water and soil and are often linked with harmful health effects when exposed to humans and animals.

The presence of PFAS in Maine is typically linked to land-based agricultural practices and has lately required testing from the Department of Environmental Protections (DEP) for public health needs. But there remain some unknowns when it comes to the chemicals’ impacts on the coastal environment and water quality as a whole.

Researchers are adept at PFAS testing on land and in the agricultural sector, but there’s a lack of data about how they show up in the coastal system, according to Dr. Christoph Aeppli, a senior research scientist at Bigelow Labs. Because the chemicals are water soluble and originate from land, they’re likely to be in surface water of rivers — and as a result, can end up in the ocean.

PFAS testing in water isn’t exactly nonexistent. The DEP conducts a yearly report called the Surface Water Ambient Toxics (SWAT) monitoring report which started tracking PFAS in 2019. But there is room for more work to be done, Aeppli said. 

Heather Kenyon, a science and advocacy associate with the Friends of Casco Bay, said that researchers don’t know whether the toxic chemicals get out to sea.

“We know it’s being found in wastewater discharge, and DEP has found PFAS in mussel tissue, so we know it’s getting to the bay,” Kenyon said. “What we don’t know is how much, or where, or if it gets carried out with the tides.”

Kenyon said the first summer of testing will provide that baseline figure for PFAS numbers. The data can then help the Friends come up with proposals for necessary regulations or discharge restrictions, depending on where any PFAS seems to be coming from. It will also likely help them refine testing methods going forward.

Better testing could not only identify specific “hot spots,” but could help explain why they’re there, Aeppli said. With so many potential sources — wastewater treatment plants, stormwater drains, agricultural runoff, etc. — knowing the specific origins could provide vital info toward PFAS control.

Aeppli expected, based on other published studies, that they would find some traces of PFAS, but a low concentration.

Concerns for the bay always come with those who use it for resources, shellfish culturing and lobstering. Aeppli said there’s no need to worry on that front. The American lobster, for example, was tested for as many as 40 PFAS compounds at 18 different sites. Half of those tested showed no trace of PFAS, while the other half showed concentrations that were “well below” the threshold of toxicity, according to the SWAT report.

The positive takeaway from all this work, Aeppli said, is that researchers are aware of the open-ended questions surrounding PFAS in the bay, and can work toward solutions. Two recent focuses in Bigelow’s research include learning what specific levels of PFAS are considered toxic, and how quickly something that is contaminated with PFAS can become uncontaminated.

Smiley face