High Levels of PFAS in Maine Birds Raise Concerns About Food Chain Contamination

Researchers Uncover Alarming PFAS Levels in Maine’s Wildlife

In a concerning development, researchers in Maine have discovered high levels of perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in the bloodstreams of various bird species, including eagles, loons, and ospreys. These findings have prompted further investigations into how PFAS, also known as “forever chemicals,” are affecting the state’s wildlife and potentially contaminating the food chain.

5 Key Points

  • Wildlife biologist Micah Miller has found high levels of PFAS in blood samples from eagles, loons, and ospreys over the last three years.
  • The research is expanding to include common eiders, North America’s largest native duck, to understand how PFAS move through the environment.
  • Fish-eating birds serve as a proxy for human exposure to PFAS, as they consume the same trout and mussels that people eat.
  • PFAS exposure has been linked to various health issues in humans, including decreased fertility, developmental delays, and increased risk of some cancers.
  • The Biodiversity Research Institute in Portland aims to map out the path PFAS follows through the aquatic food web and study its impact on bird health.

PFAS Contamination in Maine Birds 

Micah Miller, a wildlife biologist, has been collecting blood samples from various bird species across Maine to determine the extent of PFAS contamination. Over the past three years, he has found high levels of these chemicals in eagles, loons, and ospreys. To expand his research, Miller and his team from the Biodiversity Research Institute in Portland have recently begun targeting common eiders, the largest native duck in North America.

The researchers use floating mesh nets and decoys to capture the birds, then band, weigh, and draw blood samples from each individual. The samples are sent to a lab for analysis, which will provide a breakdown of the forever chemicals present in each duck’s bloodstream. Although the results won’t be available until winter, this research is crucial in understanding how PFAS move through the environment, from contaminated sites to water bodies and eventually to fish, birds, and mammals.

Implications for Human Health 

The fish-eating birds that Miller and his team are sampling serve as a proxy for human exposure to PFAS. As these birds consume the same trout and mussels that people eat, albeit in different proportions, the amount of PFAS found in their bloodstreams can provide valuable insights into the environmental exposure facing humans.

Even trace amounts of some PFAS can be dangerous to human health. Exposure to high levels of certain PFAS has been linked to decreased fertility, increased high blood pressure in pregnant women, developmental delays in children, low birth weight, increased risk of some cancers, and weakened immune systems. While the impact of PFAS exposure on wildlife health is not yet well understood, scientists predict that wildlife may be affected in similar ways to humans.

Expanding PFAS Research 

The Biodiversity Research Institute plans to expand its research to map out the exact path that PFAS follows through the aquatic food web and investigate the health impact on birds. A review of 200 peer-reviewed wildlife studies by the Environmental Working Group found forever chemicals in over 600 species worldwide, highlighting the global scale of PFAS contamination.

In Maine, research on PFAS in wildlife is still in the early stages, focusing primarily on which chemicals accumulate in which species and in what organs. Some of the most ambitious studies aim to work backward from the target species to determine the primary source of contamination, whether it be water, soil, or diet. The University of Maine’s Chatfield Lab and Wildlife Disease Genetics Lab are also starting to investigate PFAS build-up in wood turtles and wild game, respectively.

Maine’s Efforts to Address PFAS Contamination 

Maine has taken a proactive approach to addressing PFAS contamination, becoming the first state to ban sludge recycling and PFAS in nonessential products, as well as creating an emergency relief fund for affected farmers. The state has compiled a list of more than 1,100 potential contamination sites and is currently investigating these locations. So far, 73 farms have been found to exceed safe water or soil levels, and defunct landfills have tainted 51 drinking wells.

Addressing the PFAS problem is a complex undertaking, but researchers like Dianne Kopec from UMaine’s Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions believe it is a necessary one. “We can’t forget that we share this planet,” Kopec said. “Humans made PFAS, and if we can make it, we can clean it up. It won’t be easy, but it’s a problem that we must fix.”