MDI Biological Laboratory
Press Release

MDI Bio Lab Scientists Trace PFAS Connection Between Schools and Residential Drinking Water

Researchers expand testing program and outreach as EPA issues new "forever chemical" standards

Scientists at MDI Bio Lab are charting an apparent connection between rural Maine schools and PFAS contamination in nearby residential well-water supplies. And they are expanding testing of residents’ drinking water near two Hancock County schools where high levels of the so-called “forever chemicals” were previously identified.

The research is accelerating as the federal Environmental Protection Agency deploys strict new standards for safe levels of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in public drinking water supplies. (Private water supplies are unregulated, but the public standards are still important guideposts for health.)

The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health is providing funds that MDI Bio Lab will use for 40 more tests in areas near Mt. Desert Island High School and Tremont Consolidated School, and last week the Tremont Selectboard voted to authorize funding for another 50 tests for the Tremont community.

The schools have ensured safe water supplies for students and staff, but the research demonstrates that more outreach, investigation and protective action may be needed in communities around 56 Maine schools where state data show PFAS levels above the EPA’s new limits for various types of PFAS.

“We identified concerning levels of PFAS at several residences that may have come from nearby schools here in Hancock County,” said Jane Disney, Ph.D. who directs the Community Environmental Health Laboratory at MDI Bio Lab. “We hypothesize that contaminants at the MDI High School, for instance, originated with floor waxes and cleaning products that led to more widespread contamination of local drinking water.”

The testing program is a recent addition to MDI Bio Lab’s “Healthy Water/Healthy Aging” citizen-engaged science initiative. Collaborating with other institutions, it provides outreach, testing, and response options for varied contaminants found in Maine well water, while examining their health effects over time.

The program helps residents get educated about their water and, when warranted, to take action. In some cases, they qualify for state help with remediation. One MDI resident who lives near the local high school, Shayla White, says she first heard about the program at a public meeting that Disney attended.

“Jane said that qualified residents could get free water tests, and I qualified, so I signed up,” White said. “And my water tested very high for PFAS. I started to get a little paranoid, but the DEP gave me bottled water and then they installed a new filtration system. And it worked. It’s just been amazing. I mean, it’s been not fun, but it worked out.”

PFAS exposure is a growing public health concern, with documented effects on metabolic hormones, cholesterol levels, testicular cancer, hypertension during pregnancy and other physiological effects.