rain drops on water puddle

Uncovering PFAS in Rainwater: A Community Study

Published on June 14, 2024

In recent years, there has been growing concern about the accumulation of PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) in air and its spread through rainwater. Ecology Center collaborated with Great Lakes PFAS Action Network, Original United Citizens of Southwest Detroit, and Environmental Transformation Movement of Flint on a community-driven initiative that involved the collection and testing of rainwater in Detroit, Flint and Dearborn to understand the presence of PFAS in the environment. 

The Community Initiative

Community activists and environmental justice advocates in Detroit, Dearborn, Flint and Ann Arbor joined forces to better understand PFAS accumulation in the air around heavily industrial areas in Southeast Michigan and how it impacts residents. The Ecology Center provided funding and technical support for this project, and worked with community partners to pilot the study. 

Using buckets, rainwater samples were collected in Dearborn, Detroit, and Ann Arbor by community partners and analyzed by the College of Wooster. The analysis utilized the EPA’s method to measure 43 PFAS compounds, including TFA (trifluoroacetic acid), a breakdown product of common refrigerants used in air conditioning.

The results revealed the presence of PFAS in all three rainwater samples. Dearborn and Ann Arbor contained high levels of TFA. Several other PFAS chemicals, including legacy compounds PFOS and PFOA, were also detected. When TFA wasn’t accounted for, Dearborn and Detroit had the highest total PFAS. 

“We’ve long advocated for stronger environmental protections when it comes to the tens of thousands of synthetic chemicals currently used by industry. Until our society commits to regulating harmful substances as chemical classes, rather than one by one, this story of chemical bad guys and disillusioned communities will continue to repeat.” - Gillian Miller, Senior Scientist at Ecology Center 

Implications and Action Needed

The presence of multiple PFAS chemicals in rainwater, many at relatively high concentrations, emphasizes the urgent need for stronger regulations and environmental safeguards. The findings highlight the failures of the existing laws to protect human health and wildlife from the harmful effects of PFAS contamination. It is imperative to shift towards a precautionary approach in regulating new and emerging chemicals, prioritizing regulations on chemicals that accumulate and persist in the environment and lead to widespread, long-lasting, and increasing contamination. Current regulations are driven only by risk analysis, which has allowed dangerous and persistent chemicals to infect our environment, water, air, and products, putting our and our world’s health at risk. 

Key Takeaways

  • Rainwater collected in Ann Arbor, Detroit, and Dearborn was tested for PFAS and significant levels of TFA were found in Dearborn and Ann Arbor. 
  • This is a pilot study that collected rainwater on multiple rain events, which could impact PFAS levels in each sample. 
  • This study highlights the urgent need for regulatory action to address the presence of PFAS in rainwater.

The initiative to test rainwater for PFAS in Detroit and Dearborn exemplifies the power of community-driven environmental action, a cause the Ecology Center is dedicated to. The discovery of abundant PFAS in rainwater underscores the importance of collaborative efforts in addressing environmental challenges and advocating for stronger federal and state regulations to safeguard public and environmental health.

To read the full Healthy Stuff Lab study, click here.

June 26 Update

Local non-profit news organization Planet Detroit recently released an article series about Living with PFAS in Metro Detroit. Click Here to read more!