Finding Solutions to the Impact of Forever Chemicals

Maine is leading the way, and Colby scientists are contributing with their research and advocacy

Corn stalks sway in the breeze at Sue Hunter's farm in Unity, Maine. The land, which has been contaminated by toxic PFAS chemicals, is the subject of a new research partnership. Participants at a PFAS symposium hosted by Colby last week toured the farm and learned about the experimental work happening there to mitigate the contamination.
By Abigail Curtis Photography by Ashley L. Conti
November 13, 2023

Sue Hunter of Unity, Maine, has been a farmer for 50 years. It’s what she knows and what she loves. But a couple of years ago when her land was found to be contaminated with PFAS chemicals, the future of farming seemed bleak at best. 

These days, however, Hunter is feeling more hope than despair, thanks in large part to a concerted effort by Maine scientists, policymakers, farmer advocates, and others working to find a new path forward for affected farmers and farmland. 

That current of hope seemed to underscore last week’s PFAS and Agriculture Maine Regional Meeting hosted by Colby. The day-long symposium was organized by the Buck Lab for Climate and Environment, Maine Farmland Trust, and the University of Maine, with support from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture. 

Until last year, farmer Sue Hunter grew organic vegetables and fodder for dairy cows on her 150-acre farm in Unity. That changed when she learned that the land had been contaminated by toxic PFAS chemicals. Now, her land is the site of research trials aimed at finding ways to mitigate the contamination.

The 100-plus attendees began the day with a chilly, late-autumn tour of Hunter’s farm, where they strode through her new greenhouse and along fallow winter fields. The sun seemed a long-ago memory as heavy gray skies loomed over the drooping, old-gold stalks of corn and blackened tomato vines. But her small herd of dairy cows looked warm and content in the barn, where cats lounged and hunted among the hay bales. 

As people walked through the farm, they heard updates from the University of Maine and other scientists conducting research trials on her land to remediate chemicals in the soil and identify which crops and animal fodder are safer to grow on fields where PFAS has been found. 

“I’ve been a farmer for a long, long time, and it is a part of me that just doesn’t want to give up. I don’t want to start over. I don’t want to change. I want to continue on with some type of farming,” she said during a break in the conference presentations. “To me, there are lots of questions, but there’s also lots of opportunities.” 

Sue Hunter talks about the impact of finding toxic PFAS contamination on her farm, and about her hopes for the future at last week’s daylong symposium hosted by the College.

Forever chemicals leave a long mark 

Although Maine is not the only state to discover PFAS in farmland, groundwater and other places, it has taken a national leadership role in finding ways to mitigate the problem, according to presenters at the conference. Many of the people at the Colby conference had traveled to Michigan a couple of weeks ago to share what Maine has learned at a PFAS symposium at Michigan State University. 

“It was rough for a while there, and we’ve learned a great deal,” Nancy McBrady, the deputy commissioner of the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry, said. “It’s a remarkable place to be now, almost five years later … and I’m just really pleased that we can talk about lessons learned.” 

No one in Maine wanted to have to be at the forefront of the PFAS contamination crisis, but Mainers have risen to the occasion, according to Gail Carlson, director of the Buck Lab and assistant professor of environmental studies at Colby. 

State legislators have actively responded by implementing laws to ban sludge spreading, set drinking water standards, reduce the further spread of PFAS chemicals in water systems, and more. Government and non-governmental organizations alike have worked together to help affected farmers and agriculture. 

Participants walk towards the greenhouse at Sue Hunter’s farm in Unity, Maine, to learn more about the research happening there to mitigate the effects of toxic PFAS chemicals.

Many of those people, including farmers, lawmakers, doctors, researchers, policy experts and others, came together at Colby to share what they’ve learned and talk about next steps that could be taken. 

“They’re taking it seriously. They’re implementing it at a lightning pace. They’re almost creating things out of nowhere,” Carlson said of Maine’s response to the crisis. “I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that Maine is in the lead in dealing with PFAS impacts on farms, and in agriculture, and in our foods. Absolutely in the lead. Farmers are really leading the way, and state agencies are listening to what the farmers want. So that’s pretty great.” 

The downside of ‘forever chemicals’ 

Hunter is one of many Maine farmers and others whose lives were upended when they learned that toxic chemicals had contaminated their land, groundwater, or both. The manufactured chemicals are known collectively as PFAS, short for Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances, which began to be widely used in household products and industrial settings in the 1940s. 

The chemicals, which have a unique ability to repel oil, grease, water, and heat, were used to make firefighting foams, water-resistant clothing, non-stick cookware, and coated paper, among other products. Because of their durability, they’ve been dubbed “forever chemicals,” but scientists have learned their early promise hid a dark side. The chemicals also have been linked to increased cancer risk, liver disease, low birth weight and other health concerns. 

Researchers are conducting a variety of experiments and projects at Sue Hunter’s farm, including testing to see how different plants absorb toxic PFAS chemicals differently.

Maine has found high levels of contamination in soil and groundwater because starting in the 1980s, it was a common practice here—as well as in other states—to spread sludge from wastewater treatment facilities and paper mills over farmland as fertilizer. At the time, farmers did not realize that the practice would contaminate their land.

For Carlson, it was important for Colby to host the conference and be a part of the PFAS response. She’s been researching local PFAS contamination and human impacts along with Colby students for a few years, and made the discovery that chemicals used in ski racers’ fluorinated waxes linger in snow, soil and groundwater long after the race is over. In recent years, several of Carlson’s students have submitted written testimony before the Maine Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Health and Human Services related to bills that would help protect the public from PFAS exposure.

Remembering Tim Christensen

As well, the College is located in central Maine, near many of the farms that have been contaminated after being heavily spread with sludge. One of those belonged to Tim Christensen, a much-loved instructor in the biology department and a good friend of Carlson’s who cherished his organic farm in Unity. 

Christensen died in 2015 after being diagnosed with a fast-moving cancer. In early 2021, the farm, which had been purchased by two young organic farmers, was found to have been highly contaminated by the sludge that had been spread on it by a prior owner. Songbird Farm owners Adam Nordell and Johanna Davis immediately stopped all sales and moved to another home with their toddler son after tests showed they had elevated levels of PFAS in their bodies. 

The fields at Sue Hunter’s farm may look fallow and stark on a late-autumn day, but they hold promise for the future of PFAS research.

Nordell, who was at the conference, and his wife have made a point of saying Christensen’s name out loud as they have pivoted from farming to become PFAS whistleblowers and activists. 

That’s something that Carlson appreciates. Though it may not be possible to state conclusively that Christensen’s cancer happened because of the toxic contamination of his land and water, it’s hard not to wonder. 

“Because I’m mostly interested in human health, and all of my classes are about the human health impacts of pollution and climate change, etc., I really want to understand the human impacts of PFAS,” Carlson said. “In Tim’s memory, I just am really, really interested in what’s happening with the people whose water has been contaminated and the farmers whose farms have been contaminated.” 

Toward that end, she is continuing to research and learn more about how the chemicals affect people, a pattern of contamination leading to health problems that has echoed over the centuries since the very first toxic chemicals were produced. 

Sue Hunter talks about her experiences with finding toxic PFAS chemicals on her farm with the participants in the PFAS and Agriculture Maine Regional Meeting hosted by Colby.

Last summer, Carlson interviewed affected farmers with student Charlotte Torrey ’26, and now they’re working on a play that will bring the power of their stories to life for a wider audience.  

“We know now about what all these people have gone through,” Carlson said. “After Tim’s death, and once the PFAS connection came to light, I thought, we need to tell this as a cautionary tale. No more. No more. Stop this.” 

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