As Mainers learn about the presence of toxic chemicals in their public drinking water supplies and private wells, more are turning to bottled water. However, even bottled water can have per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, and the companies that sell bottled water are not required to test for the chemicals.
In fact, the state is just beginning to get a glimpse of PFAS contamination levels in bottled water. Since June, some water bottling companies have voluntarily tested for PFAS after being asked to do so by the state’s drinking water program.
Of 11 water bottlers operating in Maine, only three have tested as of Aug. 17. One detected PFAS in its bottled water, but it fell below the state’s standard for drinking water of 20 parts per trillion.
Some Mainers believe water bottlers should be legally required to test for PFAS just as public water districts are. PFAS are a class of manmade chemicals found in household and industrial products that are difficult to destroy and have been linked to serious illnesses.
Bill Cunningham, a retired dentist and resident of Pittsfield, has been purchasing bottled water from Oak Grove Spring Water for more than eight years. A few months ago, as more toxic chemicals were being discovered in drinking water in other parts of Maine, he began digging into local water bottlers’ websites to search for their PFAS levels. He found that some provided the results of the chemicals they were testing for. Oak Grove Spring Water’s website did not, however, and it worried him.
“I’d like to know if I am drinking PFAS in my water. But I’m very much afraid that we’re probably too late,” Cunningham said.
In March, he sent two emails to Oak Grove Spring Water, based in Brewer, asking if it had tested its water and could share the results. Cunningham said he didn’t hear back from the company.
Oak Grove Spring Water is one of the eight companies that have not provided any PFAS test results to the state’s drinking water program, housed within the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. It is not known whether these companies have tested for PFAS and, if so, whether they will volunteer the results publicly.
The Bangor Daily News called Oak Grove Spring Water five times over three days to ask whether the company has tested for PFAS. Three times the person who answered the phone said no one was available to answer questions.
Public drinking water systems are required to test their water supplies this year, under a new Maine law. But that law didn’t require water bottlers to do the same.
“The bottled water you buy from the store is badly under-regulated for drinking water,” said Jean MacRae, a professor at the University of Maine who specializes in water pollution.
What’s more, there is conflicting information about what are considered acceptable levels of PFAS.
In June, the US Environmental Protection Agency set its advisory level for drinking water below what current technology can even detect: 0.004 parts per trillion for one specific compound, PFOA, and 0.02 parts per trillion for another, PFOS. That means some test results show drinking water meeting the state’s drinking water standard but not the unenforceable federal level.
Of the three companies that tested, Glenrock Spring in Greene is the only one so far to have detected PFAS in its water: at 7.53 parts per trillion, according to the results submitted to the state. The concentration is in compliance at less than half Maine’s enforceable standard for PFAS in drinking water.
John Vallerand, the president of Glenrock Spring, said his company volunteered to test because he believes it’s important to know the quality of water sold to consumers. Since the company detected PFAS, it has been looking into filtration systems to bring down the level as much as possible.
Vallerand thinks companies should be required to test their water for PFAS, and people should know what they’re drinking, though Glenrock Spring did not directly alert its customers about its results.
“We have not yet notified our customers because at the present time we are well below the parameters of the state and looking to remove PFAS from our water,” Vallerand said. “If they reached out we would let them know.”
Others believe water bottling companies should be proactive. “If there’s any levels of PFAS in bottled water, the companies that know about it shouldn’t be selling it,” said Sarah Woodbury, the director of advocacy at Defend Our Health, a Portland-based advocacy group that supports access to safe drinking water.
Two of the three companies that voluntarily tested didn’t detect PFAS: Summit Spring Water Inc., a local water bottling company based in Harrison; and Poland Spring, owned by BlueTriton Brands Inc. based in Stamford, Connecticut.
N. Bryan Pullen, the president of Summit Spring Water in Harrison, said he is concerned about the EPA’s health advisory levels for PFAS, which are too low to detect with current testing technology.
“Everything else we test for is done at milligrams per liter or parts per billion,” Pullen said. For PFAS “they’re going to micrograms per liter or parts per trillion, which is an extremely low level.”
Testing is also expensive. Summit Spring Water spends about $10,000 per year for tests to ensure it meets various state and federal standards, Pullen said. But despite the cost he agreed to voluntarily test. The results showed the water was clear.
Water bottlers follow different protocols. Poland Spring, one of the top-selling national brands that sources its water in Maine, has a professional team that tests monthly for PFAS, and so far, no PFAS have been detected, according to information provided by the company. It also follows a stricter standard set by the International Bottled Water Association of 10 parts per trillion for more than one PFAS compound.
Poland Spring sources its water from 10 different springs across Maine. The results it submitted are for nine spring water stations: two stations in Poland and one each in Kingfield, Hollis, Denmark, Lincoln, Rumford, Pierce Pond and Dallas Plantation.
Poland Spring also has a 10th spring water station in Fryeburg, where PFAS were recently discovered in town water. The company tested its spring and is awaiting final results to submit to the state.
Some water bottling companies are planning to test for PFAS this year and volunteer their results to the state, but they haven’t done it yet.
One is Mount Desert Spring Water in Southwest Harbor. “I am volunteering this year to do what is called the mega test,” said the office manager, Dawn Evangelista, “and I think it costs about $800 to do it.”
Long-term exposure to PFAS is associated with increased risk of kidney cancer, decreased infant and fetal growth, and decreased immunity, according to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. There is evidence linking PFAS to increased risk of breast cancer, testicular cancer, thyroid disease and other illnesses.
“PFAS is influencing health. And it doesn’t discriminate whether you’re ingesting it with food or with water or with another source. So as long as it’s getting into you, it’s going to hurt you,” said Onur Apul, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Maine.
“We know life expectancy is going down in exposed communities,” Apul said.
In June, the EPA announced it will propose a maximum contaminant level for PFAS in drinking water in the fall, though it might not apply to water bottling companies.
The US Food and Drug Administration regulates bottled water, and it said it might adopt the EPA’s allowable level. Or it might decide that such a regulation “is not necessary,” an agency spokesperson said. Currently, the FDA has no standards or testing requirements for PFAS in bottled water.
The Maine Legislature could act before anything changes at the federal level. sen. Stacy Brenner, D-Scarborough, said she supports requiring water bottlers to test for PFAS.
“Water bottlers should be held accountable to the same standards as public drinking water,” said Brenner, who is chair of the Legislature’s environment and natural resources committee. “Anytime anyone takes a sip of water, they should feel safe knowing it has been tested for toxic chemicals, including PFAS.”
For Cunningham and his wife, drinking bottled water, which they get in large jugs that fit into a dispenser, is convenient and refreshingly cold.
“I’m 70 years old, you know. If I’ve been contaminated, it’s in my bloodstream and it’s never going to come out,” Cunningham said. “Is that going to cause me to get certain cancers or some health issues that could shorten my life? Who knows?”
He continues to drink Oak Grove Spring Water, but he hopes water bottlers in the state will become more transparent about their water quality.
“My big concern is the younger generation,” he said. “It’s going to be rough on them. I may be able to get away with it at my age and die from something else, but they may not escape. And it’s just very sad.”
Mehr Sher is a Report for America corps member. Additional support for this reporting is provided by the Unity Foundation and donations by BDN readers.
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