The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) recently promulgated new state drinking water standards for specific Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) chemicals, which went into effect August 3, 2020. These new drinking water standards also update Michigan's existing groundwater cleanup criteria of 70 parts per trillion (ppt) for PFOS and PFOA. The new groundwater standard is 8 ppt for PFOA and 16 ppt for PFOS.
Across Michigan, PFAS continue to cause 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. Today, Michigan is a leader in PFAS investigations and regulations.
PFAS are 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 12, 2020, PFAS contamination has been confirmed in 139 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:
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.
What is Michigan doing about PFAS?
Michigan's new standards are among the most comprehensive and stringent in the country. They impose stricter limits than the U.S. EPA's unenforceable health advisory levels. "These regulations represent input from a diverse group of stakeholders who helped shape these regulations," said Liesl Clark, director of EGLE. "They are practical, science-driven and, most importantly, protective of public health. This is an important milestone for Michigan's drinking water."
Where can I find out more?
For more information, visit the MPART website, which continues to be updated with information on PFAS. In September 2020, EGLE has scheduled six regional webinars to discuss the changes to the PFAS groundwater rules. Additionally, EGLE is participating in the "Great Lakes Virtual PFAS Summit" in October; more about this event and how to register can be found here.
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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