Maine found 'forever chemicals' in deer, but has no idea how widespread the problem is

Nov. 24—The discovery of "forever chemicals" in deer in central Maine and the subsequent guidance to not eat the meat raises serious questions about whether it is safe to consume venison killed in areas of the state where high levels of the chemicals have been detected or are suspected to exist.

The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife on Tuesday issued a "do not eat" advisory for deer meat killed in the Fairfield area, warning hunters who killed deer from that area to throw away the venison.

Five of the eight deer tested by the state were found to have high levels of Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), manufactured materials often referred to as "forever chemicals." They are used in numerous industrial and household products, and have been found to present health risks in humans.

Fairfield is one of 34 towns across the state identified in October where the Maine Department of Environmental Protection will test for PFAS contamination in the soil and water. The effort will concentrate on sites where industrial waste, sludge and septic tank sewage were spread as fertilizer.

DIF&W is not drawing any conclusions about deer living near other potential biohazard sites based only on the information gathered in Fairfield. But it will be working with the Department of Environmental Protection to conduct additional testing in locations throughout the state, according to Nate Webb, the DIF&W's wildlife division director.

"This is a rapidly evolving situation and we issued the advisory based on the limited information that we currently have," Webb said. "We expect to have additional information well in advance of next year's fall hunting seasons."

The department chose the Fairfield area as the initial test site based on the DEP's previous discovery of high levels of PFAS in soils there, DIF&W's communications director Mark Latti said. Residents had raised concerns about whether the contaminants had made their way into the deer.

"We believe the deer were likely exposed to PFAS by ingesting forage from impacted fields in Fairfield and it is likely that they have been exposed ever since they began feeding from those areas," Webb said.

DIF&W will use test information provided by the Department of Environmental Protection about PFAS levels in the soil in specific areas to help determine where to conduct future testing of deer.

In addition to the level of PFAS in deer, DIF&W will consider other factors including their proximity to the "hot spots" and migration patterns along with the age and sex of the animals in evaluating the full scope of the contamination, Latti said.

The sampling in Fairfield took place in October, when DIF&W staff and representatives from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services killed the eight deer that made up the test group. The deer were killed on or near farms that had known contaminants in the soil.

The effort required strict adherence to anti-contamination efforts to preserve the integrity of the samples.

"They had to be handled in a certain way to make sure that they weren't contaminated," Latti said. "Just brushing up against it with your jacket or putting it in the wrong type of container, you could throw off the levels of PFAS in the meat."

Biologists did not document any obvious health issues in the sample of deer.

This is not the first time the state has issued a "do not eat" warning.

"We have an ongoing advisory to not eat the kidneys or liver from moose because of a risk of contamination with cadmium [a heavy metal], and to limit consumption of deer liver for the same reason," Webb said.

He also pointed to ongoing advisories on fish consumption due to potential mercury exposure; one advisory recommends not to consume fish from the Police Athletic League ponds in Fairfield due to PFAS.

New Hampshire is among the states that have made similar recommendations about consuming venison and deer organ meats because of PFAS concerns.

The State Fish and Game Department recommends that hunters not consume deer liver, which studies have shown contain elevated levels of cadmium and PFAS when compared with muscle tissue.

In Michigan, the Department of Health and Human Services recommends that people not eat the organs from any deer, fish or other wild game statewide because chemicals including PFAS can accumulate in those organs.

Michigan has done other studies that found deer living near three PFAS investigation sites, and another adjacent to a lake containing fish with elevated PFAS levels, that determined those animals displayed no evidence or low levels of the chemicals.