Research sessions effort to collect data on PFAS

by Jonathan Strieff

Doctors from Redington-Fairview General Hospital, in Skowhegan, and the MaineHealth Institute for Research, in Portland, hosted six research session over three weeks in Waterville and Thorndike in an effort to collect data regarding PFAS exposure in central Maine.

PFAS refers to a family more than 4,000 chemicals present in a wide variety of consumer products, from non-stick cook wear and food packaging to water resistant clothing and stain resistant home goods. Since the 1970s, evidence of negative health outcomes associated with increased PFAS exposure has steadily grown, including decreased antibody response in adults and children, thyroid disease and dysfunction in adults, and increased risks of kidney, breast, and testicular cancers, but the evidence has primarily targeted water pollution associated with close proximity to chemical manufacturing plants and sites with heavy use of fire retardant foam, like military training bases. The high level exposure identified in central Maine in recent years is unique as the contamination has come from the application of sewage and industrial waste as fertilizer on farm fields, entering the food chain and watershed less directly.

When Dr. Rachel Criswell and Dr. Abby Fleish began seeing the impacts of PFAS exposure in their clinical patients, they sought to understand what ways this form of exposure differed from those that have been better researched. Criswell and Fleish applied for grant funding from the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences to conduct a Time-Sensitive Environmental Health Study. Time-Sensitive Studies are typically carried out following natural disasters and other anomalous events, but the doctors convincingly argued that the degree of PFAS exposure in central Maine constituted a “slow-moving environmental disaster.”

The study they designed holds three distinct goals: to describe the extent and impacts of PFAS contamination among the diverse cohort; to clearly identify all possible exposure pathways (food, water, soil dust, other); and to quantify the mental health affects resulting from the stress of mitigating the contamination. To do this, Criswell and Fleish contacted by mail every individual in the three surrounding counties who had well water tested for PFAS by the Department of Environmental Protection, asking for participants to take part in their study.

At the September 19 event, held at the Waterville Elks lodge, more than two dozen respondents attended to participate. Following a brief overview of the study by Dr. Criswell, each participant was individually walked through an informed consent form and then asked to complete a short questionnaire that asked about personal diet and lifestyle habits before and after learning of PFAS exposure. Participants were then asked to provide a blood sample and those willing also had the option to provide hair samples, human milk samples, and stool samples.

Prior to the two events scheduled in Thorndike the following week, Dr. Criswell anticipated falling far short of the 300 participants they hoped to enlist, but was already making arrangements to extend enrollment in the study. Anyone interested in participating can contact Skowhegan Family Medicine at 207-474-6201.

Jonathan Strieff is a freelance contributor to The Town Line.


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