Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a class of thousands of chemicals widely used in manufacturing and consumer products. They are often referred to as “forever” chemicals, because their strong carbon-fluoride bonds don’t break down in nature. PFOS and PFOA were phased out in 2010, but continue to pollute our environment. Moreover, we are detecting newer PFAS in our water, soil, fish, and wildlife.
PFAS contamination is widespread in Michigan.
The Michigan PFAS Action Response Team (MPART), has found PFAS in bodies of water across Michigan. Over 2,000,000 Michigan residents live in areas with PFAS in their drinking water sources. Some major sites include:
- Oscoda: Firefighting foam used at Wurtsmith Air Force base contaminated soil, ground and drinking water. A “do not eat” advisory was issued for fish in Clark’s Marsh and the Au Sable River and for deer around the base.
- Ann Arbor and Huron River: Two automobile supply plants in Wixom that discharged PFAS into the Huron River, resulting in high levels in municipalities along the Huron River watershed and “do not eat” advisories for fish. Water in Ann Arbor exceeded EPA recommendations, requiring advisories and new filtration systems.
- Parchment: PFAS levels 25 times the EPA’s recommended level were detected in drinking water and traced to an old paper mill that used PFAS to coat food-wrap paper.
- Detroit: Marathon Petroleum Company used PFAS-containing firefighting foam in training and emergency response in Detroit's Melvindale neighborhood. As a result, groundwater tests in the area reported PFAS levels up to 46 times the state's MCL.
- Dearborn: The Rouge Manufacturing Complex in Dearborn, an automobile and steel manufacturing facility owned by Ford Motor Company and AK Steel, has been identified as a source of PFAS contamination in groundwater and stormwater.
These are only a few examples of the many contaminated sites across our state!
In August 2020, the State of Michigan adopted new maximum contaminant levels (MCLs), limiting seven PFAS chemiclas in municipal drinking water. These new standards added 38 new sites to MPART's portfolio of ongoing PFAS investigations, bringing the number of groundwater sites in Michigan exceeding the PFAS MCL to 148. More information on these PFAS contamination sites can be found on the MPART website. These 148 sites only include groundwater investigations - there is even more PFAS contamination in Michigan. Sites with contaminated surface water or soil also exist across the state.
PFAS affects human health.
PFAS has been detected in human blood, semen, and breast milk. PFAS can cross the placenta, exposing unborn children. Studies of people exposed to high levels of PFAS have shown links to:
- Thyroid disease
- Immune disorders
- Abnormal liver function
- Abnormal cholesterol levels
- Decreased fertility in men and women
- Complications of pregnancy and abnormal development of children exposed in utero
- Kidney and testicular cancer
Recent studies have shown that PFAS can mimic human hormones including thyroid, estrogen and testosterone, resulting in low function. One study looking at young men exposed to high levels of PFAS over long periods of time found lower testosterone activity resulting in smaller genitalia and lower sperm counts.
PFAS and COVID-19
Evidence also suggests that PFAS chemicals may be exacerbating the effects of the novel coronavirus. Because PFAS suppresses the immune system, it could increase the risk of catching the virus. Concern also surrounds the possibility that PFAS exposure could limit the effectiveness of a COVID-19 vaccine. Studies have confirmed the association between PFAS exposure and reduced antibody responses and other adverse immune-related impacts. As the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic continue to be felt in Michigan and across the U.S., it is imperative to reduce PFAS exposure to prevent further comorbidities.
PFAS are impossible to avoid.
In addition to drinking water, fish and wildlife, PFAS are in food packaging, non-stick cookware, polishes, waxes, paints, cosmetics, cleaning products and many other goods. Plant foods grown in contaminated soil can take up the short-chain PFAS. Young children exposed to stain-resistant carpeting and water repellant surfaces can absorb PFAS from hand-to-mouth contact. PFAS levels can be detected in almost every human being on our planet. It is virtually impossible to get rid of PFAS:
- Filtration systems remove some long-chain PFAS, but most are ineffective in removing short-chain compounds. Disposal of the filters in landfills can result in contamination of leachate that ends up in our groundwater. Incinerating filters results in discharge of PFAS into air. PFAS in surface water can end up in contaminated soil and sludge.
- PFAS builds up in animals and humans. Studies have shown high levels of PFAS in human liver, lung, kidney, brain and testicles. There is no medically proven way to remove PFAS from our bodies.
The Michigan Legislature must act to protect our health and natural resources.
- Focus on prevention, not just treatment, by banning the use of all firefighting foams containing PFAS and prohibiting the use of PFAS in food contact materials. Safer alternatives are available for use.
- Assure all state purchasing eliminates the purchase of PFAS-containing products where they are non-essential or when safer alternatives exist.
- Provide adequate funding to continue testing for PFAS, remediation of contaminated sites, and treatment funds for water utilities and private well users to provide safe drinking water.
- Create a publicly available database and maps of all known sites of contamination (PFAS and other contaminants of concern), along with test results as they are received.
- Establish state medical monitoring and biomonitoring programs, the costs for which are to be covered by insurance and/or the party responsible for the contamination.
- Hold polluters acctountable for contamination so municipalities and tax payers are not left footing the bill.