PFAS: The New Water Crisis in Michigan

by David Warwick
Aug 13, 2018


On July 29, a state of emergency was declared by state of Michigan officials in response to the discovery of high levels of Per- and Polyfluoralkyl Substances (PFAS) in the city of Parchment's municipal water source. Residents were advised to stop drinking the water after tests showed PFAS at levels exceeding the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) lifetime health advisory of 70 parts per trillion (ppt).

Across Michigan, PFAS are causing concern among citizens, government leaders, business owners and environmental scientists. In 2017, the state established the multi-agency Michigan PFAS Action Response Team (MPART) to investigate, test, address and communicate to the public about this growing health concern. PFAS are currently considered "emerging contaminants" because the science is still evolving. There are health advisories for PFAS, but there continues to be uncertainty surrounding their impact on human health.

What are PFAS?
Initially developed in the 1950s, PFAS are man-made chemicals. They were used in consumer products, such as nonstick cookware, cleaning products, stain-resistant coatings, fast-food containers/wrappers, personal care products and more. They are also found in firefighting foam, specifically Aqueous Film Forming Foam (AFFF), on and near military bases, civilian airports and fire training sites. PFAS are also found in and near industrial plants and municipal landfills.

Although thousands of chemicals are included in the PFAS group, PFOA and PFOS are the most studied because they were the most extensively produced; however, the focus may shift to other PFAS as more is learned about them and how they were used.

PFAS production and import has been phased out of the U.S. market, but PFOA-based products may still reside in some inventories. Similarly, PFOS is no longer used by U.S. manufacturers but still resides in the environment through consumer products. Although PFOA and PFOS are no longer manufactured in the U.S., they are still produced internationally and can be imported into the country in consumer goods, such as carpet, leather and apparel, textiles, paper and packaging, coatings, rubber and plastics.

Why are PFAS a problem?
According to the U.S. EPA, PFAS are dangerous because they are persistent (do not break down in the environment), bioaccumulative (build up over time in the blood and organs of humans and animals) and may be transported over great distances by wind or rain.

It is now known that these chemicals have seeped into groundwater and contaminated public and private well systems. This is a particular concern for Michigan, where PFAS-associated sites, such as military bases, tanneries and electroplating facilities, have been staple industries in many of our communities. As of July 23, PFAS contamination has been confirmed in 34 sites in 19 Michigan communities.

How can PFAS affect health?
Scientists are still learning about the health effects of exposure to PFAS, and additional research is necessary to better understand this complex issue. If humans or animals ingest PFAS (by eating or drinking food or water that contains PFAS), the PFAS are absorbed and can accumulate in the body. The National Center for Environmental Health (NCEH)/Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) is studying the issue to understand how exposure to PFAS might affect people's health.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), PFAS exposure may potentially:

  • Affect growth, learning and behavior of infants and older children;
  • Lower a woman's chance of getting pregnant;
  • Interfere with the body's natural hormones;
  • Increase cholesterol levels;
  • Affect the immune system; and
  • Increase the risk of cancer.

How are we exposed to PFAS?
The main source of exposure to PFAS is ingestion of water or food (including Great Lakes fish) that contains these chemicals. Contamination in drinking water is typically localized and associated with a specific site or facility, such as industrial facilities where PFAS were produced or used to manufacture other products, as well as locations where firefighting foam was used (oil refineries, airfields, current or former military bases, firefighting training facilities and wastewater treatment facilities).

Consumers may be exposed to PFAS via commercial products, such as microwave popcorn, nonstick cookware, stain-repellent treatments, paints and sealants; however, there is limited information about which of these products currently contain PFAS and how much can accumulate in our bodies.

Breastfeeding infants may also be exposed to PFAs, as these chemicals have been found in breast milk. Small children can be exposed to PFAs in carpet since they are closer to the ground and play on the floor; this is especially true of infants due to hand-mouth tendencies. Additionally, workers in facilities that make or use PFAs can be exposed to higher amounts of these chemicals and have higher levels in their blood.

How should homeowners/business owners protect themselves from PFAS contamination?
A recent MLive article by Paula Gardner detailed ways for individuals to guard against possible PFAS contamination. Several of these suggestions are included below.

  • If you're on a municipal water supply, learn what testing shows.
  • If you're on a well near an area of concern, contact your local health department about testing.
  • If you're on a well and not within an active investigation area, you can contact the DEQ Environmental Assistance Center at 800-662-9278.
  • Use caution when eating fresh fish from Michigan and surrounding waters. For more information about which fish are safe to eat and how much is safe to eat, visit the Eat Safe Fish website.
  • Protect your pets and livestock from contaminated drinking water sources.
  • Products labeled stain- and water-resistant, including rugs and carpet, likely contain PFAS chemicals.
  • Ask restaurants if you are going to drink their tap water or use "to-go" boxes.
  • Look to see if your cookware is nonstick.
  • Check ingredients on personal care products and be wary of ingredients with "fluoro" in the name.

How much is too much?
Currently, Michigan is using the EPA Lifetime Health Advisory Level (LHAL) of 70 ppt as their guideline for safe levels in drinking water for two PFAS - PFOA and PFOS individually or combined.

According to the ATSDR, the minimal risk level should be dropped to less than 12 ppt for some PFAS chemicals because exposure above that level "could be dangerous for sensitive populations like infants and breastfeeding mothers."

What is the state doing about PFAS?
The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) is conducting PFAS testing at 1,380 community water supplies, 461 schools, 27 airports, 70 active landfills, 355 industrial operations involved in plating and 2 million private wells. The MDEQ is taking this precautionary step to determine if public health actions are needed. The MDEQ is also partnering with the Michigan Department of Health & Human Services (MDHHS) and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) to test fish and wildlife.

While much is still in the development stages, the state of Michigan also has information on in-home water treatment on the MPART website.

Where can I find out more?
For more information, visit the MPART website,which continues to be updated with information on PFAS. The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services also runs a Toxicology Hotline at 800-648-6942.

Envirologic is staying close to these developments and is prepared to assist our clients with evaluating how these compounds could affect their operations. If you have questions, please reach out to our team at (800) 272-7802 or by email.

Download the article - PFAS: The New Water Crisis in Michigan.

This article has been updated. Please follow this link to updatd version.

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pfas  pfoa  pfos  per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances  water contamination  70 ppt  mpart  emerging contaminants  persistent  bioaccumulative  contaminated groundwater  health risk  eat safe fish 

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