PFAS 101

New stories about PFAS contamination in Michigan seem to be in the news every week, so here is a brief introduction to the issue. PFAS is short for per- and poly-fluoroalkyls, a large collection of chemical compounds that repel moisture and resist heat. Two subgroups mentioned in news reports are PFOA and PFOS. Since the 1950s, manufacturers have used them for everything from fast food wrappers to waterproof fabrics and non-stick cookware (i.e. Scotchguard and Teflon).

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, studies suggest links between PFAS and health issues such as: liver damage, high cholesterol, pregnancy-induced hypertension, thyroid disease, reduced immune systems, kidney cancer, asthma, lower fertility, and low birth weight for babies.

Recognition of PFAS problems for Michigan began in 2010 at Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Oscoda, near Lake Huron. Firefighting foam used for crashes and training had percolated into the soil and contaminated groundwater. MDEQ issued a “do not eat” advisory for fish in the area and began checking nearby water systems. Residents on base and nearby were warned not to drink their tap water. MDEQ then began testing water supplies near other military bases, airports and fire departments that use fire retardant foams and found widespread problems. They also found PFAS contamination from manufacturing of paper, plastics, metals, textiles, and tanning.

The reason there are so many “new” cases this year is that DEQ is now conducting statewide tests of all public water supplies and school wells. If tests find contamination, nearby private home wells also get checked. Although PFAS have been used for decades, the EPA only issued a health advisory about lifetime exposures over 70 parts per trillion (ppt) in 2016, which means testing and regulation are not required. However, a new CDC report suggests exposures above 7-11ppt (depending on which chemical) are harmful, so states are creating their own regulations. PFAS is difficult to remove from groundwater but can be filtered out at treatment plants. Unfortunately, Michigan currently follows the EPA guideline and only requires municipalities to ensure levels below 70ppt so we citizens need to push for better standards.

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