The High School and Tremont Have Forever Chemicals, Do You?
Worrisome chemicals lurk in multiple island locations as scientists try to discover where, what this means, and how it could impact our health
BAR HARBOR—School Superintendent Mike Zboray said during a meeting, Monday, August 21, that testing for forever chemicals around Mount Desert Island High School continues, and Dr. Jane Disney has volunteered her efforts to help collate and determine how far the problem has potentially spread around the high school and also around the Tremont School.
Back in 2022, Mount Desert Island High School was one of more than a half of a dozen schools that were dealing with forever chemicals on their sites.
Schools were mandated to test for the chemicals. If the school had more than 20 parts per trillion in its drinking water, then the problem had to be remediated. At MDI High School, filters were installed for all potable water. Test results for all the schools are available at the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Drinking Water Program website.
More testing for those forever chemicals (per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS) occurred these past months at several sites on the MDI High School property. Those results were discussed at the MDI High School Trustees meeting in late July and then in a more detailed manner, on August 21, at a PFAS update meeting held at the high school.
The original tests showed levels as high as 85 parts per trillion in the water at the site. That’s been remediated by the filter. Since installation of the potable water filtration system, test results have shown PFAS levels as undetectable.
However, further testing has shown PFAS at multiple sites on the school grounds. The standard is 20 parts per trillion, but that standard is only for drinking water. There are no recommended parameters for any other contamination outside of drinking water, although the federal government and many states are working on developing those.
TEST FOR RESULTS FOR MDI HIGH SCHOOL GROUNDS
At Monday night’s meeting, School Superintendent Mike Zboray and MDI High School Principal Matt Haney presented the results of testing which was started last October and will be complete after the last round of testing is done on August 22.
The chart below shows the test results for the latest rounds of testing. There were 15 sites on the school grounds tested and six types of PFAS were tested for.
There are five results of note on the chart.
Site number six – Effluent pump house. This is the pump that pumps the water from lagoon number two to the spray field
Site number seven – Influent, wastewater. This is a sampling of the water after it exits the septic tank but before it reaches the lagoons
Site number eight – Groundwater sample from the proximity of lagoon number 3
Site number 11 – Irrigation well. This is the well that is used to irrigate the playing fields
Site number 14 – Surface water. This particular surface water sample was taken from a stream that flows away from the high school grounds in a southerly direction along Eagle Lake Road.
Here is a Google Earth photograph showing the 15 test sites on the high school grounds.
There are six different PFAS chemicals. According to the federal Environmental Protection Agency, those chemicals can negatively affect health when less than just 1 part per trillion is present.
Forever chemicals are named this because it takes an extensive amount of time for those chemicals to break down. They can be found in toilet paper, nonstick cookware, carpet, food packaging, and many cleaning products. The chemicals themselves have been linked to health hazards like decreased fertility, immune system issues, cancers, and cardiovascular issues.
The current system, constructed in 1968, utilizes a 37,000-gallon septic tank, two lagoons, and a treated water spray system. A third lagoon was added to the system in 1988, but that lagoon was taken out of service earlier this year. The spray system operates under a Maine Waste Discharge License and the school is allowed to spray between the dates of April 15 and November 15. The treated water is sprayed onto a 3.85-acre field.
The permitted spray discharge ranges from 27,150 gallons per acre per week to 95,025 gallons per acre per week. That amounts to a possible total spray amount of 104,527.5 gallons to 365,846.25 gallons per week. According to Haley Ward, the system of spray nozzles that disperse the treated water onto the 3.85-acre irrigation field are set up so that the water is sprayed in a circular pattern that is 90 feet in diameter.
The MDIRSS has received two notices of violations from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection regarding the wastewater treatment system. The first was in June 2003 and the second was July 2023. Both of the violations were in relation to discharge of water from the lagoons that were not permitted into the adjacent wetlands. Both violations were discovered during routine water level monitoring of surface water elevations by the school staff responsible for the wastewater system.
It is not known for sure how water may be leaking from the lagoons. The lagoons are lined with clay which is a less permeable substance than many soil types, but they are not lined with any manufactured liner such as a HDPE liner. The assumption being made by those involved is that the water is either permeating through the lagoon berms or seeping through the clay surface and into the ground underneath the lagoons. In addition, the lagoons are susceptible to animal damage.
In a July 28, 2023 article, the Bar Harbor Story wrote about three different possible solutions for wastewater treatment at the high school laid out by the consulting company Haley Ward. One of those solutions was rehabilitating the existing lagoon/spray system that is currently in place. At Monday night’s meeting, one audience member asked if the lagoon area would remain open to the public as many people like to walk around that area and look at birds and other wildlife. Zboray responded that it would remain open to the public for the foreseeable future and it also contains a section of cross-country track used by middle schoolers.
However, in the draft report referenced in our July 28 story, Haley Ward recommends that if the lagoons are rehabilitated, the high school install a fence around the lagoons and the spray field where the treated wastewater is sprayed.
INTERACTIVE MAP AND DATA GATHERING
Dr. Jane Disney, of the MDI Biological Laboratory, spoke from the audience at Monday night’s meeting. She has been conducting some additional testing on the school grounds and at nearby residence. One of the residences tested at 24.4 parts per trillion and another tested at 64.06 parts per trillion.
Disney has also created an interactive map that shows properties, including the high school and the residences referenced above, where PFAS testing has taken place and the corresponding results. Disney stated that the only way to understand our community’s (the entire island) PFAS issue is to continue to test and collect data and record it in a scientific manner.
When viewing the map, there are buttons in the upper left-hand corner that allows users to manipulate the map and change the layers that are visible. For instance, the map can show all of the houses in the viewing area. If those properties have been tested, the map user can view the test results, the test date, etc.
PFAS IN TREMONT
During Monday night’s meeting, Disney spoke about PFAS in Tremont. Using the interactive map link above, one can view Tremont and see the site of the old municipal dump. This area has high concentrations of PFAS and many of the houses in the area already have potable water filtration systems in place. Many of these filtration systems were paid for by Maine DEP due to the fact that the PFAS are most likely occurring because of the old dump.
Tremont Consolidated School was tested for drinking water PFAS and had a result of 19.9. At Monday night’s meeting, Zboray stated that even though the school is not over 20 parts per trillion, it is going to be getting a filter for it potable water supply.
Disney stated that she had been told that the school’s levels may not be related to the old dump site, which is across a tidal flow and marsh from the school, but that the school may be self-contaminating. Tremont is the only school on the island, other than the high school, that is not connected to town water and sewer infrastructure.
JANE DISNEY TESTING RESIDENTIAL DRINKING WATER
Because of the PFAS levels around MDI High School and Tremont Consolidated School, Disney would like the opportunity to test the tap water from homes that are in close proximity to either school.
If you are interested in having your tap water tested, the MDI Biolab has some funds and will pay to have it done. Both time and money are limited, so if you are interested, please read the flyer prepared by Disney below.
HEALTH IMPACTS AND ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACTS
Though doctors, researchers, and scientists know some ways that PFAS are influencing health around the globe; they are still discovering different aspects to that relationship between forever chemicals and health. Research has indicated that the chemicals are found in animal’s blood (ticks, whales, dogs, deer) and according to The Guardian,
”The highly mobile chemicals accumulate and continuously cycle through the environment because they do not break down, and they can be carried long distances through the atmosphere. That means even animals in remote parts of the world that are far from industrial sources, such as penguins in Antarctica or polar bears in the Arctic, can be contaminated with high levels of PFAS.”
The precise impact is not currently known according to the piece.
In an article for the New York Times Magazine last week, Kim Tingley writes,
”The sheer range of health problems that have been linked to PFAS exposure makes it hard to picture how a single type of contaminant could contribute to all of them. If you list the dizzying number of ways you might interact with the chemicals and draw a line from each of them to a list of potential outcomes, you end up with a mess of scribbles and the conclusion that everything causes everything.
Describing how PFAS act on our biology becomes even more convoluted when you factor in how many variations there are. Scientists have a decent understanding of how some of the earliest formulations, like PFOS and PFOA, behave on a cellular level. But health data on newer formulations is extremely limited. It’s safe to say that once we eat, drink, breathe or absorb PFAS molecules, some readily bind to one of our major blood proteins. (Stanford University researchers reported this property in 1956.) As blood circulates throughout the body, it delivers PFAS to our organs and other tissues. Some PFAS molecules resemble the fatty acids we burn for fuel and use as cellular building blocks, says Carla Ng, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Pittsburgh. Our cells thus recognize them as beneficial and bring them inside their outer membrane as they do other resources. ‘The things that PFAS look like,’ she says, ‘are the things our body is used to dealing with as food and parts of ourself.’”
WANT TO LEARN MORE ABOUT PFAS FROM EXPERTS?
The September Science Café at the MDI Biological Laboratory is on what they are learning about PFAS forever chemicals. It will be on Monday, September 11, at 5 p.m.
This presentation is an online-only event and open to the public. The registration page is below:
LINKS TO LEARN MORE
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