A pair of chemicals linked to serious health issues and used for decades to make products ranging from firefighting foam to pizza boxes is being investigated as a source of widespread contamination at military bases and drinking water systems across the country.
Best known by its initials, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), the chemicals have been used to make carpets, upholstery, food packaging, cookware and hundreds of other products. In the United States, PFOA was used by DuPont to make Teflon, while PFOS was used by 3M to make Scotchgard. Traces of the man-made chemicals can be detected nearly everywhere in the environment and can be expected to found in everyone's blood.
Due to health concerns, the chemicals have been mostly phased out of production by manufacturers in the United States. But because the chemicals take years to breakdown in the environment and people's bodies, PFOA and PFOS are expected to be chemicals of concern well into the future.
National water sampling directed by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 2013 and 2014 found PFOA and/or PFOS in 52 public water systems in 19 states at levels exceeding federal water advisory limits. The presence of the chemicals has been found in many more public drinking systems, including those in Ann Arbor and Plainfield Township, near Grand Rapids.
Richard Benzie, assistant chief of the Michigan Department of Environmental (DEQ) Quality Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance Water Supply Program, said the EPA advisory isn't a predictor of what the EPA could set regulation levels at in the future, if at all. "The advisory is in no way what the drinking water standard may be," he said. "They must also consider if there is technology to treat these things, and is it cost effective."
For instance, Benzie said the drinking water standard for arsenic is "much higher than if it were based on just health."
"Michigan has a lot of naturally occurring arsenic, and the cost impact to small systems caused them to set it much higher than if it were based on just health," he said. "Those standards don't mean there's no risk at a lower level."
The DEQ adheres to the EPA's drinking water advisory levels for drinking water. However, the state has implemented thresholds for surface water (non-drinking water) in the state at levels of 11 parts per trillion (ppt) for PFOS and 42 ppt for PFOA. However, those levels refer to surface water concentrations, which are predominantly set for fish consumption advisories issued by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.
Testing of drinking water in Michigan for PFOA and PFOS falls under the EPA's Unregulated Contaminants Monitoring Rule, which allows the agency to issue a list of no more than 30 contaminants every five years to be monitored by public water systems serving over 10,000 people. The EPA added PFOA and PFOS in its third update of the rule. Utilities are required to report samples to the EPA that detect levels above two ppt for PFOA and above four ppt for PFOS.
With the majority of residents of southeast Michigan receiving drinking water from the Great Lakes Water Authority (formerly the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department), the EPA required the water provider in 2009 to test for PFOA and PFOS.
Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA) COO Cheryl Porter said the EPA's Unregulated Contaminants Monitoring Rule require the GLWA to collect data and report that data to the EPA.
"The Great Lakes Water Authority has been monitoring PFOA and PFOS since 2009, and is pleased to assure the public that in our latest round of screenings, done from 2014 to 2015, these chemicals tested so low they were practically undetectable at .00067 (parts per billion) and .0013 parts per billion respectively," Porter said. "PFOA and PFOS are unregulated contaminants."
Converted to parts per trillion, the GLWA findings were .67 parts per trillion for PFOA and 1.3 parts per trillion for PFOS, below both the national advisory level of 70 parts per trillion, and the state's limits for surface water.
"We take our responsibility to public health and safety seriously, and are in full support of the EPA's new health advisories, which will further ensure quality drinking water. Additionally, GLWA can confirm that these chemicals are not a threat to our system, or our ability to continue to provide water of unsurpassed safety and quality to the region."
Removal of PFOA and PFOS from a drinking water source depends on the treatment method and the concentration of the contaminants in the source water. Conventional treatment has been shown to be largely ineffective at removal of PFCs, but studies show up to 90 percent removal is possible with certain advanced treatment techniques like activated carbon filtration, high pressure membrane filtration or anion exchange, according to the American Water Works Association.
Even in communities where the chemicals haven't been found in high concentrations, the widespread use of the chemicals makes them ubiquitous in the environment. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey found PFOA and PFOS present in the blood of more than 95 percent of some 2,094 participants.
Exposure to elevated levels of the chemicals has been linked to serious health issues, including kidney and testicular cancer, low birth weight, thyroid disease, decreased sperm quality, pregnancy-induced hypertension and immunotoxicity in children. Toxicological studies in animals have linked PFOA and PFOS exposure to altered mammary gland development, reproductive and developmental toxicity, testicular cancer, obesity, immune suppression and other serious health issues.
Despite health and environmental findings, there remains a lack of enforceable drinking water regulation at the federal level.
"It's very toxic," said Denver-based toxicologist Richard DeGrandchamp, a faculty member at the University of Colorado. "When it was being procured in large quantities, 3M and DuPont really did little work on the toxicity of the compounds."
Among his work, DeGrandchamp has been contracted by the DEQ to study contamination at the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Oscoda, where the use of PFC-laden (perfluorinated compounds) firefighting foams has resulted in heavy contamination of drinking and surface water in and around the base, including the Au Sable River.
"They last forever. They don't break down and microbes don't eat them,” DeGrandchamp said. "Once they get in your body, it takes a long time for them to be eliminated. The half-life ranges from three to seven years, but what that means in realtime is that it takes about seven half-lifes to excrete all of that out. You wouldn't be rid of it until about 40 years old."
The man-made chemicals belong to a class of perfluorinated compounds (PFCs) that aren't naturally found in the environment. Referred to more specifically, PFOA and PFOS are included in a subset of PFCs considered perfluoroalkyl substances, or PFASs. The classification refers to the chemical makeup of the compounds, which utilize a long string of carbon-flourine bonds, resulting in PFOA also being referred to as C8, for its string of eight carbon atoms.
"All of us have PFCs in our body," DeGrandchamp said. "It was used in a lot of products. It's a good water repellant and surfactant. Because they have been added to all these consumer products, our bodies are full of them, and we are finding out now how dangerous they are."
Used in non-stick, stain-resistant and waterproof products because of their ability to repel water and greases, PFOA and PFOS were widely present in hundreds of industrial and commercial products over the past 50 to 60 years. Many of the dangers of PFOA and PFOS came to light following a 2001 class-action suit filed on behalf of some 50,000 residents of the region surrounding Parkersburg, West Virginia, home of DuPont's Teflon Plant. In 2005, acting on a petition from the non-profit Environmental Working Group, the EPA fined DuPont $16.5 million, and the company and others subsequently agreed to phase out PFOA and PFOS.
The chemicals have been mostly phased out of production in the United States, but can still be found in products – such as fast food wrappers, clothing and a host of other consumer products – imported from manufacturers outside the country. The chemicals also are used in some applications, such as hydraulic fluids and other industrial uses where a replacement hasn't yet been developed.
In January of 2009, the EPA tested sites in Alabama where sewage sludge converted to fertilizer, or biosolids, were applied to agricultural lands where elevated levels of PFOA and PFOS were found. The sewage, according to the EPA, was from a wastewater treatment plant that receives water from numerous industrial sources, including facilities that manufacture the chemicals. Later that year, the EPA published provisional health advisories for the chemicals in regard to their presence in drinking water, with levels set at 200 ppt for PFOS and 400 ppt for PFOA.
In Alabama, a class-action suit was filed against Minnesota-based 3M, the primary producer of the chemicals. The Minnesota attorney general in 2010 also filed suit against 3M on behalf of the people of that state, alleging the company contaminated more than 100 square miles near its plant in Cottage Grove, Minnesota. In February 2017, DuPont and Chemours agreed to pay $671 million to settle about 3,500 lawsuits from West Virginia and Ohio residents, whose drinking water was contaminated by PFOA produced at the Parkersburg plant
The EPA in May of 2016 replaced the 2009 figures with new, lifetime health advisories that combined the two chemicals and set a 70 ppt advisory level for both contaminants. To put the levels in perspective, one part per trillion is equivalent to about one grain of sand in an Olympic-size swimming pool.
DeGrandchamp said he believes the levels set by the EPA in 2016 are still too high.
"I'm not real happy with what the EPA did there. I think (the advisory levels) are too high," he said. "The endpoints they looked at didn't include cancer. I think the EPA was under a great deal of pressure just to get something in place so that they would feel comfortable with something in place. States like New Jersey are about 10 times less than what the EPA set. I'm not sure the EPA will re-evaluate that, especially with (President) Trump in office."
The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection's Division of Water and Geoscience said in February that PFOA was found in 78 percent of 23 drinking water systems tested in that state, albeit at very low levels. The state subsequently set the lifetime exposure levels of PFOA at 4 parts per trillion.
The EPA states that the updated health advisory levels were calculated based on the drinking water intake of lactating women, who drink more than other people and can pass chemicals along to nursing infants. The levels were also based on the exposure to the chemicals for 70 years drinking two liters of drinking water per day. The advisory assumes 20 percent of exposure to the chemicals comes from drinking water and 80 percent come from non-drinking water sources, such as the environment and exposure to products containing the chemicals.
Public drinking water systems that discover levels of PFOS and/or PFOA above 70 ppt are advised to undertake additional sampling, inform their state drinking water safety agency, which would be the DEQ in Michigan, and determine the best way to proceed with additional sampling. System operators are also advised by the EPA to notify the public of the elevated levels and potential health risks. However, because the recommendations are only advisories, there is yet to be any requirements to address PFOS or PFOA at the federal level. Still, drinking water systems serving large populations must monitor for the chemicals under the Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule.
While the EPA hasn't created national primary drinking water regulations for PFOA and PFOS, the agency states it is evaluating the chemicals as drinking water contaminants, in accordance with the Safe Drinking Water Act. In order to regulate a contaminant under the act, the EPA must find it; may have adverse health effects; occurs frequently at levels of public health concern; and there is a meaningful opportunity for health risk reduction for people served by public water systems.
The EPA's Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule requires periodic testing of drinking water systems for contaminants of concern, but don't have enforceable water quality standards. Sampling under the rule from 2013 to 2015 found no detectable PFOA or PFOS in 105 drinking water samples in Oakland County. However, those samples don't include those in the county on private drinking wells, nor smaller municipal systems such as those which serve a portion of the city of Rochester.
Rochester Department of Public Works Director Shannon Filarecki said the city isn't required to test for PFOA or PFOS in its drinking water system. Rochester receives drinking water from both the GLWA and publicly-maintained wells.
Testing in Macomb County returned no results above reporting levels for 37 samples. In Wayne County, 95 samples were tested, with zero found to be above reporting levels. In total, three samples taken in Michigan were at or above the reporting levels in 2013 and 2014, which included those in Plainfield Township and Ann Arbor.
Water samples collected in Plainfield Township, just north of Grand Rapids, in June of 2013, detected PFOS at 50 parts per trillion. Samples in September of 2014 detected levels at 60 parts per trillion. The contamination, while not above the previous health advisory levels set by the EPA, nor the updated lifetime advisory levels set in 2016, still caused enough concern that a source well where the contamination was found was shut down in order to lower levels. The contamination was later traced to a contamination leaching from a shuttered landfill about two miles from the contaminated well.
"In Plainfield, they used enough wells that they are able to minimize it and not use the wells where it was found, but they did lose some redundancy," Benzie said. "They are also looking at the source and what they can do to remedy that."
In Ann Arbor, samples for PFOS in March of 2014 were detected at 43 parts per trillion. Benzie said that contamination was traced to the Huron River, which provides the city's water system with 80 to 90 percent of its drinking water. While additional testing at other drinking water sources detected PFOS, the levels were far below that of the 43 parts per trillion detected in the water in 2014.
"We are below the advisory levels in Ann Arbor, but because there's an advisory and there is a chemical, we decided to do some additional monitoring, even though we aren't required," said Brian Steglitz, manager of water treatment services for the city. "We go to the intake, which is the Huron River. It's not like some systems, like in Plainfield where they have multiple wells. We have a blended source of water. We have surface water and wells. That's a single source, and we can't turn off the river."
Steglitz said no one has been able to identify the source of contamination in the river, which starts at Kent Lake in the Milford area of Oakland County and initially flows in a southwesterly direction through Livingston and Washtenaw counties and then back in a southeasterly direction into Wayne County where it eventually dumps into Lake Erie.
"We don't really know where it's coming from," he said. "It's probably not a singular source. It's probably coming from upstream."
Using information from the EPA's Unregulated Contaminants Monitoring Rule sampling scientists found in each additional military site within a watershed is associated with a 35 percent increase of PFOS detection in drinking water, and a 10 percent increase of PFOA. The study found an 81 percent increase in PFOA contamination in watersheds where industrial sites were located where the chemicals were produced or used. The study also found a "small but significant" increase in PFOS and PFOA – about two percent – for each wastewater treatment plant located in a watershed. However, scientists said the number of wastewater treatment plants may also be an indicator for other population-driven sources of the chemicals.
Chemist and nanotechnology researcher David Andrews, who serves as senior scientist for the non-profit Environmental Working Group and who contributed to the study, said more work needs to be done to identify sources of contamination. The group is also pushing for the EPA to set national regulations that go beyond an advisory.
"There's no great mechanism in tracking where these chemicals were used or disposed of, and a very small quantity can contaminate groundwater sources. We do have some information on identifying some locations where they may be," Andrews said, referencing the 2016 study. "It comes down to having to look at individual assessments and finding those sources."
As scientists and health experts learn more about PFOA, PFOS and related chemicals, the more evidence they find that the chemicals may pose a threat to health at very low levels, Andrews said. Further, he said current testing methods allow for detection of more than a dozen chemicals. However, because EPA reporting requirements only call for a limited number of compounds, the agency is "needlessly throwing away information on the chemicals that would help identify sources."
Despite the push to expand drinking water standards, Andrews said federal regulations are falling decades behind the discovery of chemicals scientists know are occurring.
"One of the most telling points is that the amendments to the Safe Drinking Water Act were passed in 1996, and since then, the EPA hasn't been able to set new standards," he said. "It's seems unlikely with the current political environment in Washington, but it wasn't moving quickly before."
In addition to elevated levels of PFOA and PFOS in Michigan found in Ann Arbor and Plainfield Township, the highest levels of contamination have been found at the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base, in Oscoda, where the chemical contamination has entered drinking water wells near the base. That contamination is directly related to Aqueous Film-Forming Foam (AFFF) that was used during training exercises and emergency response situations at the base.
Work on Michigan's surface water limits began in 2001, when the DEQ sampled surface water from rivers in different parts of the state for presence of PFOA and FPOS. The sampling was conducted because PFCs had been found at elevated levels in water, fish and wildlife in Minnesota and other areas of the country, indicating the compounds might be emerging contaminants of concern. The DEQ said results from those tests showed the levels of PFOS and PFOA in state surface waters at the time "were not a statewide concern."
About a decade later, the DEQ's Remediation and Redevelopment Division and state toxicologists began assessing PFOS and PFOA found at the former Wurtsmith base in Oscoda, which the state has confirmed was due to firefighting foams used at the base that contained the compounds. Groundwater at the site that was contaminated by the foams flowed into the nearby Au Sable River via Clark's Marsh.
Michigan's surface water levels were set largely due to the ability for the chemicals to build up in fish tissue in contaminated waterways.
As the national drinking water advisory level assumes a person consumes two liters of water a day, the non-drinking water level assumes a person consumes .01 liters of surface water while recreating and 15 grams of fish per day over a lifetime, said Dennis Bush, toxicologist manager with the DEQ's Water Resources Division. Because PFOS builds up in fish tissue to a much higher degree than PFOA, Bush said the limits for PFOS is much lower than that of PFOA.
While Michigan's limits on PFOA and PFOS relate to water, the limits were constructed in large part with that water's impact on fish in mind.
"I don't believe there are any surface water data for PFOS or PFOA at drinking water intakes. However, it's noteworthy that the concentrations of PFOS and PFOA that have been measured in surface waters – except for samples collected at Clark's Marsh in Oscoda – are below the EPA's health advisory," Bush said. "Keep in mind that the EPA health advisory doesn't apply to surface water, but to finished drinking water. Because the ability of PFOS to build up in fish tissue, one of the most important potential sources of exposure to PFCs is from surface water perspective is the consumption of fish."
Fish samples were sent by the DEQ to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services for testing, which revealed extremely high levels of PFOS in filet samples of bluegill and pumpkinseed fish collected from Clark's Marsh. The findings resulted in the state health department to issue a "Do Not Eat" fish consumption advisory for the both the marsh and the nearby lower Au Sable River.
The findings led to additional sampling of fish and surface water in some areas of the state, including the Flint, Kalamazoo, Muskegon, Saginaw, St. Joseph, Thunder Bay and Tahquamenon rivers in 2013 and 2014. PFOS was detected in water samples in nine of 12 sites, ranging from 1.4 to 50.7 nanograms per liter. Concentrations at Clark's Marsh in Oscoda were found to be 5,099 nanograms per liter, with concentrations in the Flint River the highest behind those in Oscoda.
Levels of PFOA were found in all samples, with the exception of the Tehquamenon River, with the geometric mean concentration ranging from 1 – 4.3 nanograms per liter, compared to PFOA levels at Clark's Marsh of 1,309 nanograms per liter. PFOA concentrations outside of Clark's Marsh were highest in the Kalamazoo, Flint and Saginaw rivers.
Testing of 447 fish filets collected between 2010 and 2013 detected PFOS in nearly all those analyzed, with the highest concentrations found in fish from Clark's Marsh, with concentrations ranging from 3,170 to 9,580 micrograms per kilogram. The second highest concentrations were found in fish from the Flint River, where smallmouth bass had a mean concentration of 132.1 micrograms per kilogram. PFOA was found in 17 percent of all fish, but only in samples from the Saginaw and Thunder Bay rivers.
The testing shows contamination may be found throughout the state, particularly in areas in more urban settings, concentrations of PFOA and PFOS are significantly higher near military installations where firefighting foam was used.
"You can clearly see the signal when you see the firefighting foams," said Robert Delaney, Defense and State Memorandum of Agreement Coordinator for the DEQ's Remediation and Redevelopment Division. "We can see that for certain."
Former Air Force veteran James Bussey believes neuropathy in his legs and hands, chronic liver disease and other serious health issues he suffers from were caused by chemicals he was exposed to during his time stationed at the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Oscoda.
"There are many people that are suffering from the same things that I'm suffering from," Bussey said during a May 1, 2017, news segment on MSNBC. "At my old base, we have a group of over 800 people now, and it's all very similar."
The group, Veterans & Civilians Clean Water Alliance, organized after the state discovered chemical contamination from firefighting foam used at the base was first confirmed in 2010. The state issued health advisories after it was discovered the chemicals leached into the groundwater and contaminated drinking water, as well as nearby surface water, including the Au Sable River.
The clean water group recently began working with environmental activist Erin Brockovich, who appeared with Bussey on Greta Van Susteren's MSNBC show, "For The Record" to talk about contamination at Wurtsmith and dozens of other military bases.
"I don't think we are talking about it enough, and I don't think people want to know what is really going on," Brockovich said about the contamination. "I have been receiving complaints and pleas for help from our returning soldiers for years from at least a dozen bases who are dealing with this contamination."
The Department of Defense is in the process of testing about 200 military bases for PFC contamination. The military testing and cleanup work is believed to have run into the hundreds of millions of dollars, with measures for Congress to monitor the defense department's progress built into the department's 2017 budget.
The Air Force said in a statement last year that tests at four of 30 of its bases confirmed PFC levels in drinking water was found to be above the EPA's recommended guidelines for PFOS and PFOA.
"The Air Force is committed to eliminating firefighting foam containing either PFOS or PFOA from its inventory, and is finalizing a phased plan to replace existing foam inventories with recently approved PFOS/PFOA-free alternatives that still provide adequate fire protection for critical assets and infrastructure," the Air Force said in a statement. "These alternatives do contain PFCs but do not contain the two addressed by the EPA advisory."
Closer to Oakland County, in Macomb County, past and current operations at Selfridge Air National Guard base in Harrison Township is located next to the Clinton River and Lake St. Clair, which flows into the Detroit River, which serves as a drinking water source for the region, along with an intake in Lake Huron, near Port Huron, for the GLWA. While the National Guard has contracted with Los Angeles-based AECOM to conduct testing at the base, which is scheduled to begin in the late summer or early fall of 2017. Results of those tests are expected in late 2017 or early 2018, said base spokesman Phillip Ulmer, with the 127th Wing.
"The Air Force and the National Guard are using a comprehensive approach: identify, respond, prevent, to assess for potential PFOS and PFOA contamination of drinking water, on and off installations, and respond appropriately," Ulmer said.
The Air Force and National Guard are testing about 200 bases to confirm whether the chemicals are present in groundwater and soils, with priority on sites that have probable contamination and a possible pathway for the contamination to reach drinking water. If a drinking water source is identified that could be contaminated, it will be tested, he said. If contamination is found, the Air Force will provide alternative sources of water and conduct the necessary actions to mitigate the contamination.
Additionally, Ulmer said the Air Force and National Guard are committed to eliminating future releases of PFOS and PFOA by only using firefighting foams in actual emergencies, rather than training exercises, and "by transitioning to a more environmentally responsible alternative" as of August 2016. The Air Force, he said, directed all installations to stop testing foam systems on fire vehicles in July 2015.
Toxicologist Christina Bush, with the Michigan Department of Community Health, said health impacts from elevated levels of PFOA and PFOS in specific communities isn't yet known in Michigan.
"We don't have any information that would draw a line between exposure at Michigan sites and health effects in those communities," she said. "We aren't at that point. We are trying to be proactive, so that if we hear about those sites, we can learn more about them and determine if it's alright for people to be eating fish and drinking water.
"There's no concern for skin contact, as far as getting the water on you for people that live there or visit there. It's not a problem. It's anything that goes down the hatch. Our advice is in regard to drinking and cooking with the water, or if it's in the fish."
Even with the phasing out of sources of PFOA and PFOS contamination, exposure to the chemicals in everyday products is nearly impossible to avoid. Other products utilizing the chemicals include waterproof and stain resistant textiles, clothing, and an array of mechanical and industrial components, such as plastic gears, gaskets, sealants, pipes, tubing and other products.
A study published in February of 2017 found PFCs, including PFOA and PFOS, in more than half of fast food packaging tested in 2014 and 2015. The study included 407 samples of paper and paperboard food wrappers and related food packaging at U.S. fast food restaurants. Samples were collected from restaurants in Washington, Massachusetts, Michigan, California and Washington D.C., from 27 large fast food chains.
The study found nearly half (46 percent) of food contact papers contained some form of PFC, including PFOA and PFOS. Of those, about 38 percent of sandwich/burger wrappers and 57 percent were used for Tex-Mex or dessert/bread wrappers. PFOA was among the most commonly detected PFC.
Researchers also attempted to investigate the fast food chains' knowledge of their fluorinated food packaging, only two of which provided substantive responses: "One stated that they believed none of their packaging contained fluorinated chemicals and the other stated that it verified with their suppliers that their food packaging didn't contain PFASs.
Other studies have shown the ambient background level of PFOA and PFOS are present throughout the Great Lakes. A 2015 study of herring gull eggs found the presence of PFOAs in 97 percent of 114 eggs sampled, which also included levels of PFOS.
Because humans, particularly those in more urban areas, are already constantly being exposed to PFOA and PFOS, additional sources, such as military bases, contaminated industrial sites or landfills, only serve to raise risks.
While no federally identified Superfund sites in Oakland County have identified PFOA, PFOS or other PFCs specifically, some toxicologists say it's possible some contamination could be present but but just haven’t been tested for in the past.
"They are so useful in so many aspects, but they are also indestructible in the environment," Delaney said. "In many ways, we are just scratching the surface of the issue."
DeGrandchamp said most Superfund sites weren't tested for PFCs until recent years. "I've investigated many Superfund sites, probably over 100, and up until about four years ago, I didn't even call for PFC testing. The testing for PFC is a relatively recent activity," he said. "Now, we are going back to those sites where we ignored it because we didn't know how toxic they were. I would imagine every state, if you took a map and put red dots on it, it would look like measles in every state."
As scientists continue to link the number of serious health concerns to PFCs such as PFOA and PFOS, and the constant exposure to the compounds becomes more apparent, many wonder what the overall impact to the country's health is and will be in the future.
"The more we start looking for it, the more places we are going to find it. You're going to find it in the drinking water in many places," DeGrandchamp said. "What is missing: what is the people's blood levels drinking it? Are they high enough that they should be advised not to have children? Once they get in your body, there's no way to eliminate them quicker."