PFAS: the New Water Crisis in Michigan - updated

by David Warwick
Aug 20, 2019
0

PFAS

This article was originally posted on August 13, 2018. The Michigan PFAS Action Respse Team (MPART) has moved quickly to address this emerging contaminant issue in our state. Below is the revised article.

Across Michigan, Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) are causing concern among citizens, government leaders, business owners and environmental scientists. In 2017, the state established the temporary multi-agency Michigan PFAS Action Response Team (MPART) to investigate, test, address and communicate to the public about this growing health concern. MPART was re-established as a permanent advisory body within the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) in February 2019.

PFAS are currently considered "emerging contaminants" because the science is still evolving. The compounds are also known as "forever chemicals" due to their persistence in our bodies and the environment even after they have been phased out of production. 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 August 1, 2019, PFAS contamination has been confirmed in 63 sites across Michigan.

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 much is too much?
Currently, Michigan is using the EPA Lifetime Health Advisory Level (LHAL) of 70 parts per trillion (ppt) as the guideline for safe levels in drinking water for two PFAS " PFOA and PFOS individually or combined. According to the ATSDR, however, the minimal risk level for some PFAS chemicals should be dropped to less than 12 ppt because exposure above that level "could be dangerous for sensitive populations like infants and breastfeeding mothers."

In June 2019, new health-based values for seven PFAS compounds were reported to MPART by its Science Advisory Workgroup. Using these values, EGLE plans to develop new statewide regulatory standards that will be implemented by April 2020. According to Steve Silver, executive director of MPART, These proposed health-based values for PFAS in drinking water put Michigan on a path to potentially having some of the most advanced and far-reaching standards in the nation.

What is the state doing about PFAS?
In 2018, EGLE conducted a $1.7 million study statewide that was the first of its kind in the nation. It involved PFAS testing at 1,723 public water systems including community water supplies, schools on their own well, childcare providers and Head Start programs on their own well and tribal water systems. Throughout 2019, MPART plans to fund quarterly monitoring of municipal systems, schools and daycares where total PFAS levels were found to be 10 ppt or higher during the study.

EGLE is additionally sampling locations across Michigan where PFAS are known to have been used or disposed of. Thus far they have conducted PFAS testing at more than 27 airports, 70 active landfills, 355 industrial operations involved in plating and 2 million private wells. EGLE has also partnered with the Michigan Department of Health and 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. MDHHS also runs a Toxicology Hotline at 800-648-6942.

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


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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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