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Unraveling a toxic nightmare: More wells show 'forever chemicals'

Fairfield residents worry about the long-term impact of PFAS on their health and properties

FAIRFIELD, Maine — Catch Vivien Leigh's full story Thursday at 6 p.m. on NEWS CENTER Maine.

The Somerset County town of Fairfield remains at the center of the largest state investigation into so-called "forever chemicals."

PFAS compounds are a class of industrial chemicals found in a number of household products. But they don't naturally break down and there's no known way to destroy them.

Tests of private wells show alarming levels of the compounds, linked in federal studies to cancer, low birth weight, and other serious health problems. 

Regulators say the chemicals were in wastewater sludge, legally used as farm fertilizer, that leached into the groundwater for decades.

In Fairfield, 63 wells have tested above the U.S. Department of Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) safe advisory limit. But the number of tainted wells is growing. Unsafe PFAS levels are also showing up in communities just east of Fairfield.

Residents say they are trapped in a toxic nightmare they can't wake up from. EPA investigators want to know whether the PFAS contamination is isolated to this area in Somerset County or is a much larger state-wide problem.

Residents—like Cathy and Bruce Harrington, who have three children and 14 grandchildren—are still reeling from the discovery last fall of high levels of industrial chemicals known as PFAS in their private wells.

"They all live in the neighborhood and they love to come to grams—I have Grammy days," Cathy Harrington said.

The kids eat vegetables right out of the garden, play in the dirt and guzzle down big glasses of water on hot days. They practically live in the couple's swimming pool. But now, those precious memories turn her stomach.

"The grandkids swim in that pool every summer and we fill it from the well ... not knowing that was contaminated water they were swimming in every year," she said.

Next door, Ashley Goodrup and her fiancé, Troy Reny, had big plans for their first home, located on six acres.

"I am supposed to be getting married on this property next year," Ashley said.

Now those dreams are shattered by a toxic nightmare coming from the couple’s well.

'We don't want to be sitting on something that can give you cancer, [that can] cause you to have birth defects," she said.

Samples were conducted months after the compounds were first discovered a year ago in milk from the 500-acre Tozier Dairy Farm. The farm’s milk was pulled from the shelves and beef production halted.

Cathy and her husband Bruce, who bought their home more than 30 years ago, feel blindsided.

"I have been feeding myself poison and I am angry," Cathy said. 

Those tests found shocking levels. The EPA’s safe water limit for PFAS is 70 parts per trillion. Levels in the wells along How Road alone show numbers as high as 20,000 to 30,000 parts per trillion.

The industrial compounds are in household goods such as carpets and furniture, as well as firefighting foam.

The chemicals are known as "forever chemicals" because they take years to break down in the body and in the environment.

The EPA says wastewater sludge spread as fertilizer on the farm’s fields is the source of the contamination. A number of impacted residents live next to or near the farm. Stormwater run-off from the fields often ends up in their yards.

Dr. Rainer Lohman, an environmental scientist and the director of the Superfund Research Center at the University of Rhode Island, said that with rainfall, the compounds are slowly released into several feet of the topsoil over time.

"They will slowly trickle into the soil, and then move further down and eventually reach the groundwater, which will then be pumped up by someone for drinking purposes," Lohman said. 

Click here for information about the DEP investigation into PFAS in private wells.

The town of Fairfield is providing free bottled water to residents if their wells tests above the EPA's safe limit. For more information and other resources, click here.

This story will be updated.