PFAS threats to health in all aspects of daily life
By Stacy Gittleman
Cathy Wusterbath remembers the summers of her childhood and teen years swimming and working as a lifeguard on the shores of Van Etten Lake in Oscoda Township in Iosco County.
Wusterbath’s parents, both teachers, moved to Oscoda Township in the 1960’s to raise a family and teach the local schoolchildren who were mainly from military families stationed at the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base.
For decades, the U.S. Air Force would hold training and firefighting operations at the base, including those that would require fire to be doused by using aqueous film forming foams (AFFF). AFFF is just one kind of PFAS, PFOS, and PFOA (per- and polyfluoroalkyl) substances, a class of over 15,000 long-stranded fluorinated bonded chemicals. They have garnered the name “forever chemicals” because their molecular bonds are the strongest manmade on earth and they do not degrade or break down in the environment.
The most pervasive and harmful of these compounds include perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS), the kinds used in AFFF. They were eventually linked to kidney, liver, and thyroid cancers, as well as many other ailments. PFOS was phased out of production in 2002, and U.S. manufacturers eliminated PFOA emissions and product content by 2015. Although banned in 12 states, including Michigan, some firefighting operations in the country still have not replaced FFF with fluorine-free foam solutions.
Today, there exists a toxic plume of AFFF on the military base which seeped contaminants into Van Etten Lake and surrounding areas. You can no longer eat fish from the lake or the Au Sable River. Eating hunted game like deer is also prohibited. Though swimming is still permitted in the lake, people are warned to stay away from any floating PFAS foam.
“I spent most of the summers of my teen years in that water,” said Wusterbath, 54, a breast cancer survivor who was diagnosed at age 28. “They cannot say for sure that my cancer was directly caused by exposure to PFAS, but they say that for you to get cancer from that PFAS foam, a person would have to spend many hours in or near the water, like five days a week and three to four hours a day. That’s about the same amount as a beach lifeguard shift – so you do the math.”
In its heyday, the population of Oscoda was 12,000. Now, Wusterbath, a retired nutritionist turned environmental activist, said that number’s been slashed in half. Though most residents receive municipal water drawn from Lake Huron, about 250 homes with wells found themselves with an undrinkable water source.
“Around 2016, we began going to town hall meetings facilitated by the state, our local health department, and the military,” Wusterbath said. “We had no idea what PFAS was. It was a one-way conversation. They just provided basic information, but they couldn’t give us any guidance on how to advocate for ourselves.”
In 2018, the state began testing levels of forever chemicals and found levels that measured in the thousands or hundreds of thousands of parts per trillion. In 2016, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a health advisory – not a regulation – of a maximum contaminant level threshold at 70 parts per trillion (ppt). (Scientists measure PFAS exposure in water in nanograms per liter. One nanogram equals one ppt. In layman’s terms, that one part per trillion can be visualized as one drop of water in 20 Olympic-sized swimming pools.)
Wusterbath and Tony Spaniola, a retired Department of Environment Quality employee, mobilized and created two grassroots organizations to tackle the problem. First, Need Our Water (NOW) was established to legally advocate for the compensation of the residents in Iosco County impacted by PFAS and make the military pay for the cleanup. That included stopping the PFAS plume coming from underneath the grounds of the closed Air Force base from continually seeping into the waterways.
The two also work with the Great Lakes PFAS Action Network, a group of activists and experts whose communities have been severely impacted by PFAS pollution who work to educate policymakers at the state and federal levels and seek resources to secure funding for large-scale PFAS cleanup for people across the Great Lakes region.
Thanks to the efforts of these two organizations, in August 2023, the U.S. Defense Department announced plans to expand PFAS groundwater cleanup at the former base.
Though this is a start, Wusterbath said Oscoda is still burdened with over $1 million in loans it spent providing water hookups to residents with tainted well water, paid off in part through some grants secured by NOW.
The next step involves monitoring the health of residents. Wusterbath said the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) in October 2022 began testing the blood of residents of Oscoda and other nearby townships for nearly 50 different kinds of forever chemicals. The testing was made available to anyone in these townships aged 12 and up. So far, Wusterbath said that about 511 people from 370 households have enrolled in confidential testing. The results of the testing have not been released.
“This is going to be a long process,” Wusterbath, cautioned. “And tying a specific disease directly to anyone given PFAS chemicals is complicated and yet to be proven. But anecdotally, I have seen a high rate of high cholesterol diagnoses in town. And cancer is where people are really struggling. We have had physicians and veterinarians reporting high rates of cancer in people and animals. We know we have been exposed.”
Though not everyone’s situation is as acute as it is for the residents of Iosco County, we have all been exposed to forever chemicals. According to researchers, 99 percent of organisms on earth, from those of us humans living in metro Detroit to polar bears living in the Arctic Circle have these forever chemicals within us. And unlike other toxins that enter the body, they do not get excreted and tend to stick around and accumulate over a lifetime.
Brought to the commercial market by 3M and DuPont, and best known for their use in nonstick Teflon pots and pans, PFAS chemicals also make shoes waterproof and carpet and furniture upholstery stain-proof. These “forever chemicals” represent the strongest carbon-fluorine bonds on the planet.
Consumers can thank PFAS chemicals for long-wearing mascara, lipstick, and sunscreen, as well as the leak-proof wrappers and cardboard boxes that keep fast food grease from leaking onto their laps. The heat-resistant qualities of PFAS have been deployed in the military, airlines, and firefighting applications, most notoriously through foam.
The cases of PFAS contamination in Michigan are persistent and growing. On September 11, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel filed a lawsuit in the Kent County 17th Judicial Circuit Court against the Gerald R. Ford International Airport Authority following repeated warnings and demands for action from the state to clean up a plume of AFFF that is releasing into the groundwater supply. Nessel is suing the airport authority for PFAS releases into the below-ground water supply which has also been discovered in residential wells in nearby Cascade Charter Township.
Forever chemicals are also lurking in stain-proof or waterproof fabrics or carpeting thanks to Scotchgard coating. Omelets and cookies for decades have slid right off pans and cookie sheets made with Teflon. In the bathroom, any personal care product or cosmetics marketed as long wearing or waterproof, and even some brands of dental floss contain PFAS.
The ubiquity of PFAS may seem overwhelming. But there are actions you can take as a consumer to begin to minimize your risk of exposure.
Jamie DeWitt, a former professor of pharmacology and toxicology at the Brody School of Medicine at East Carolina University spoke with Downtown Newsmagazine during her move to continue her research on PFAS at Oregon State University. She is best known for her award-winning work studying the health and environmental impacts of PFAS in North Carolina, particularly the Cape Fear River Basin. The river supplies water to one-fifth of North Carolinians but is also the location of PFAS manufacturer DuPont.
“There have been numerous epidemiological and toxicological studies looking at PFOA and PFOS,” explained DeWitt, who grew up close to Battle Creek, Michigan. “We are now confident that PFAS exposure is linked to many different types of chronic diseases – a leading cause of death in the world today – including a strong link between forever chemical exposures and kidney and testicular cancer. Toxicology studies in my lab indicated that exposure to PFAS also causes reduced vaccine response, and accompanying this response is reduced resistance to a variety of other diseases. Exposure to these chemicals is also related to low birth weight in babies, elevated levels of cholesterol, thyroid disease, liver disease and ulcerative colitis.”
In DeWitt’s East Carolina University laboratory, toxicologists discovered that a certain PFAS called perfluoro ether acid, which has become commonplace in the Cape Fear River, contains more oxygen atoms in its molecular structures and tends to be more toxic to the immune system and the liver. The findings of this study are being prepared to submit to a journal called Toxicology Letters.
She explained: “Fortunately, these are more easily filtered out than some of the compounds with fewer oxygens, but they also may hang around inside of people’s bodies for a longer time than the smaller compounds and therefore have time to interact.”
DeWitt added that researchers are finding a common thread among less studied and more commonly studied forever chemicals: they both suppress vaccine responses.
“We also are trying to understand why this happens at the molecular level. We have evidence to suggest that PFAS affects how efficiently the cells in our body use energy.”
As far as what people can do in their everyday lives to minimize PFAS exposure, DeWitt advised first looking in their kitchen and getting rid of any cookware made with Teflon. Look for cookware that has a PFAS/PFOA-free label. For indoor and outdoor furnishings, DeWitt advises to avoid those with PFAS water-repellant coatings.
“Also, try to reduce packaged foods that may contain PFAS in the packaging,” she said. “The largest culprits in this area are fast food burgers and fries wrapped in grease-proof paper and pizza boxes. It’s almost impossible to avoid PFAS, but with some effort, exposures can be reduced through certain controls.”
Most importantly, DeWitt said the most widespread way forever chemicals enter our bodies is through our drinking water supplies, so it is best to pay attention to the source of the drinking water. Public utilities in Michigan regularly test their waters for PFAS, and those reports are available to the public. However, these reports and monitoring do not include private wells.
One of DeWitt’s colleagues is Scott Belcher, another native Michigander living and working in North Carolina as associate professor of biology at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, N.C.
Belcher is a toxicology researcher for the Center for Environmental and Health Effects of PFAS. His research focuses on learning how PFAS/PFOS/PFOA accumulates in wildlife and aquatic food chains in the Cape Fear River.
Belcher’s family roots are in the Grand Rapids area, home of the Wolverine Worldwide tannery.
In 2020, Wolverine, known for producing shoe brands like Hush Puppy, Saucony, Keds and Stride Rite, was sued for $115 million to be provided over a multi-year period to extend municipal water to more than 1,000 properties with private wells in Algoma and Plainfield townships where Wolverine for decades dumped the PFAS waste it used to waterproof its shoes.
When the Wolverine story broke, Belcher said his family took the approach of just not wanting to know about it. And though no members of his family or people he knows from back home have any outstanding health problems, not seeing a lot of people walking around obviously and immediately sickened can be a challenge to bring more awareness to the myriad of long-term diseases and conditions associated with PFAS.
“It was an eye-opener for me, the way we grew up,” admitted Belcher. “Our way of thinking is that if we don’t know about something, it is not going to hurt us. But the ubiquity of PFAS in our environment means this is a very different kind of creature of contamination.”
He continued: “It’s hard to see these specific effects because that would equate to human experimentation. We can observe associations between PFAS exposure and things like higher cancer rates or higher cholesterol levels associated with exposure, but seeing those direct links is beyond what science is capable of at this time.”
Belcher’s studies examine PFAS levels in the apex predator of the Cape Fear Food chain – the alligator. Belcher said the alligator’s robust immune system makes them an ideal species to study for vulnerabilities to contaminants. Last October, Belcher’s study revealed that these reptiles had elevated levels of 14 PFAS chemicals in their blood.
“What we found is consistent with our other wildlife findings. The part of the immune system that normally reacts to bacteria and viruses is not as robust if the animal is exposed to levels of PFAS. The symptoms the animals were showing mimicked human autoimmune diseases such as lupus.”
In a forthcoming September 2023 study still awaiting peer review, Belcher examined PFAS levels in fish fillets from five locations in North Carolina and compared it with PFAS levels in fish from previously published studies. The result was the discovery of 22 different PFAS in the fillets, including only four of the PFAS reported in water. PFAS types and higher concentrations were observed in fish caught near a known PFAS point source compared to those from a reservoir used for drinking water and recreation. Median fillet PFOS levels were 54 parts per billion (ppb) in fish closest to the point source and 14-20 ppb in fish from the reservoir.
There are no federal standards for forever chemical thresholds in food such as fish. In July of 2023, North Carolina enacted its first fish consumption advisories for several species of freshwater fish due to high levels of PFOS. The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services recommends that no more than one meal per year include fish caught from the Cape Fear River Basin.
Belcher’s water was tested by the EPA and was found to contain high levels of PFAS. For the safest water possible, Belcher has invested in a $2,000 reverse osmosis filtration system for his home, which is the most effective method of PFAS remediation on the market today to filter out PFAS. There are less expensive filters that can remove up to 60 percent of PFAS, but these also run into hundreds of dollars. For any of these systems to work effectively, Belcher stressed that filters must be regularly replaced, consumers should not ignore that red “replace filter” warning in their refrigerator, and filters can be expensive.
And here, Belcher said, lies the problem. He said the burden of the cost of cleaning up PFAS should lie with the polluter and not the consumer. More rigorous testing and scrutiny should be placed on the chemical manufacturing industry to prevent harmful chemicals from being used and released into the environment in the first place.
“I use the genie out of the bottle analogy,” said Belcher. “We make things out of chemicals which we don’t test, and then we ask questions later. This is one of the unfortunate aspects of how chemical regulation is performed in the United States.”
In recent years, though, developments happening at the federal level during the Biden administration may slowly move the country in the right direction.
In March 2023, standing on the campus of the University of North Carolina in Wilmington – his home state where he headed the Department of Environment Quality – EPA Director Michael Regan ushered in the most sweeping law proposal against PFAS contamination in drinking water.
Set to be implemented by the end of the year, The National Primary Drinking Water Regulation covers six PFAS including perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS), perfluorononanoic acid (PFNA), hexafluoropropylene oxide dimer acid (HFPO-DA, commonly known as GenX Chemicals), perfluorohexane sulfonic acid (PFHxS), and perfluorobutane sulfonic acid (PFBS).
When the law goes into effect, it will set a maximum contaminant level threshold for all above chemicals at 4 ppt; the highest level of a contaminant allowed in drinking water. For the other four PFAS, the agency is proposing using a “hazard index” which is a tool used to address cumulative risks from mixtures of chemicals.
According to the National Resource Defense Council, once finalized, this would mark the first time in 26 years that the EPA has regulated a new drinking water contaminant on its own initiative. All other EPA standards were issued after Congress ordered the agency to act. Weighing in with thousands of public comments, the law has been met with both praise and scrutiny from researchers, environmentalists and public water utility officials.
After reviewing the proposed law, the Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA) in May issued a public comment, stating that while the utility is encouraged by the proposal, it is concerned about who will be footing the bill for PFAS remediation for its 3.8 million Michigan residents who already are challenged with paying for their current water and sewerage charges. GLWA has been testing for PFAS since 2009, and has not detected forever chemicals, according to current state and federal standards.
GLWA Chief Executive Officer Suzanne Coffey stated that the proposed rule would impact many of GLWA’s operations including water sampling, treatment and disposal. The potential costs and liabilities associated with the proposed rule are a significant concern to GLWA and the members and users of its water system. Like other water authorities around the country, no one is certain just how much PFAS cleanup and remediation will cost, or who will cover the bill.
Coffey wrote: “Based on our historical sampling results, GLWA is not expected to require capital improvements for additional water treatment processes to meet the proposed regulation. However, if PFAS concentrations emerge as a problem for us, the cost of treatment would not be confined to a single capital improvement investment. The legacy costs required by disposal or regeneration of the treatment waste streams would be systemic and are currently unknown due to other pending PFAS regulations regarding solids disposal. Public water utilities did not produce, regulate or discharge PFAS, but will be asked to continually contend with the cost of their disposal. GLWA strongly supports a “polluter pays” model where those who produced PFAS pollution bear the liability and costs of its remediation – not the public.”
In order to reduce point source reduction of PFAS, such as capturing and treating runoff of these chemicals at industrial sites where they are used and leachate from landfills, GLWA in 2020 launched its Industrial Pretreatment Program team on the water reclamation side and also instituted a Pollutant Minimization and Source Evaluation Program for PFOS and PFOA.
However, GLWA expressed to the EPA that the implementation of these initiatives has put a financial and workforce strain on its agency and would not know how it could further absorb more stringent federal mandates without support.
“It is our strong belief that those who manufacture and profit from these chemicals should be responsible for any needed remediation and the ultimate costs to eliminate PFAS concentrations that pose a threat to our health and the environment,” Coffey again stressed.
The Great Lakes PFAS Action Network also submitted comments commending the EPA for the proposed ruling in a letter submitted with 213 signatures.
“The EPA’s proposed drinking water standards are an important milestone in the fight to protect public health and will save lives in impacted communities on the front lines of the PFAS crisis,” said Tony Spaniola, the organization’s co-chair in a press release at the time of the announcement. “This is an A+ decision by the Biden Administration for front-line communities. We urge that the proposed drinking water standards be adopted and implemented with all deliberate speed.”
A ruling – and financial backing at the federal level – cannot come soon enough for a crisis to the drinking water that has been stewing for decades.
In June 2023, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) released a study that revealed that up to 45 percent of all public water utilities – that’s water for over 200 million Americans – have some PFAS contamination in them, meaning that the levels of PFAS exceed 70 ppt. To understand potential exposures to PFAS at the point of use, the USGS sampled 716 locations (269 private wells, 447 public supply) across the United States between 2016 and 2021.
The EPA proposed rule – and any remediation that will come because of it – only applies to public water supplies and not private wells. In 2022, the USGS reported that PFAS was detected in public and private drinking water wells in 16 eastern states. PFAS was in 60 percent of wells serving public water systems and 20 percent of wells serving individual households.
Toxicologist Linda Birnbaum is a retired scientist and former director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) and the National Toxicology Program. She began studying the impact of forever chemicals in the 1980s. A resident of North Carolina, she also participated in studies with the EPA which detected unacceptably high levels of PFAS in her water supply. Birnbaum said residents were informed by the water authorities, who she believes are proactive enough to enhance its utility with the proper filtration systems.
Once again, to best protect ourselves from PFAS, Birnbaum advised starting with the water we drink. A few easy guides and interactive maps searchable by zip code are available at the Environmental Working Group’s website.
“I urge people to find out what the PFAS levels in your drinking water levels are,” she said. Birnbaum has participated in many tests on her water supplies. “And if they exceed what those maximum contaminant levels which the EPA will hopefully put into place by the end of this year, consider putting a charcoal-activated filter into your sink or your refrigerator specially designed to filter out PFAS/PFOS.”
Filters are readily available on the market. Some higher-end models will custom formulate orders according to a customer’s zip code and latest water utility records. There are also higher-end water pitcher filters and whole-home reverse osmosis systems. However, these remedies run from the hundreds to thousands of dollars.
Birnbaum said she expects the EPA to finalize its ruling by year’s end for six chemicals and, she predicts that it will add four others to the regulation. The next steps, she predicts, will involve testing our blood for PFAS levels just as we now get tested for high cholesterol and diabetes.
Birnbaum pointed to the 2022 Guidelines on Clinical Testing for PFAS Exposure from the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine, which is geared for the use of healthcare professionals and clinicians. The report said that those living close to areas suspected of elevated PFAS levels, such as wastewater treatment plants, airports, or military bases should be clinically tested for PFAS exposure.
“I think we are all going to find out that we may have elevated levels of forever chemicals in our blood,” she warned, adding that it is difficult to pinpoint a direct line from the presence of a certain forever chemical in the body to a specific disease.
Birnbaum said the report shows how science is just beginning to pinpoint these connections between varying levels of PFAS in one’s blood to specific conditions such as high cholesterol, hormone disruptions and certain cancers. Such blood readings could help doctors better evaluate and monitor a patient’s vulnerability to diseases and conditions over time.
Birnbaum said the report contains excellent clinical advice, as long as it would be adapted by the Centers for Disease Control. Another barrier to such comprehensive detection of PFAS levels in the blood is the fact that most people do not have insurance that would pay for such testing. “Unless the CDC comes out with a recommendation, most health insurance companies are not going to pay for these tests. And blood testing for PFAS levels can cost $500. That price may come down as more people request to get the test, but most people do not have that kind of money to pay for a test out of pocket. For one, I’d love to have my blood tested.”
In June, 3M announced that not only will it begin paying out billions of dollars to the most severely impacted municipalities, but it will also phase out all its PFAS production by 2025. 3M has been involved in a multi-district litigation settlement which will make $10.3 billion available over more than 13 years for public water supplies which are going to need money to deal with PFAS cleanup. Birnbaum said money from this lawsuit will go towards remediating the 400 most polluted drinking water municipalities in the nation, but hundreds of others have been impacted and remain in litigation.
“It’s still not enough, but this number is a good start,” Birnbaum said. “And that dollar amount will grow. While 3M still admits no wrongdoing with PFAS, they announced they would no longer use forever chemicals after 2025. That’s probably because they know their litigation costs will only increase, so that is a move in the right direction on their part.”
Although Birnbaum is encouraged by the new forever chemical limit rulings from the EPA, she admitted this has been a long time coming, in part due to powerful chemical and manufacturing lobbyists who push back on regulations. While Birnbaum said that no exposure to forever chemicals would be the ideal exposure, she remains a pragmatist, knowing zero right now is an unachievable number for a variety of reasons.
“I remember when the head of the Office of Water (for the EPA) called me in 2016 as they announced the health advisory of 70 ppt, he said he knew I was not going to think it would be strict enough,” said Birnbaum. “But that advisory ruling, and now the new EPA laws which will probably go into effect by the end of the year, are steps in the right direction. The problem with all our laws and regulatory agencies is that we have the best government that money can buy. A tremendous amount of money is being spent on lobbying to block environmental regulations.”
Birnbaum said in the decades since products containing forever chemicals have hit the market, there has been an increase in different types of cancers, autoimmune diseases, neurological and developmental disorders and falling fertility rates. Though no direct conclusive evidence can be drawn between any one forever chemical and one disease, Birnbaum said just as we now have evidence that bad air quality days can be connected to an increase in trips to the emergency room for asthma attacks, the science is moving closer to understanding links between PFAS and a myriad of ailments.
“At this point, everyone has been exposed, but we do not yet know to what severity of degree of exposure is causing which illness or effect, and we have yet to understand what other variables in their lives are coming into play. But toxicologists and pharmacologists are beginning to realize that these chemicals cause multiple detrimental health effects.”
Michigan has pioneered the states in taking the EPA’s 70 ppt health advisory and making it an enforceable law in 2018, as well as being one of the states with one of the most cohesive, multi-agency approaches to confronting the PFAS problem.
“It is because we approach PFAS from seven departments of our state government, each taking a different angle yet staying in their own lane, that Michigan is recognized as a national leader,” said MPART Executive Director Abigail Hendershott.
Prompted by its own widespread PFAS contamination, Michigan under the Snyder administration in 2017, and signed into law in 2018 by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, the state created the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team (MPART) – a task force that spans across environment, health, military and agricultural agencies. MPART puts the state in leader status to stop PFAS contamination at the main sources – industrial, landfill, military, and airport sites.
To further fund PFAS remediation efforts in the state, Lansing allocated $25 million for PFAS and Emerging Contaminants – Contamination and Consolidation Grants as part of the $500 million MI Clean Water Plan to upgrade water infrastructure for the fiscal year 2024 budget.
Presently, MPART has fully documented activity and progress on over 262 sites where PFAS contamination has been detected, including 21 sites in Oakland County. All the sites with PFAS activity, as well as detailed data reporting and interactive maps showing where the state has detected, tested and in the process of remediating PFAS are found on MPART’s searchable website and interactive maps.
MPART sends out weekly communications available to the public reporting on new sites where PFAS has been detected, ongoing activities at existing PFAS sites, announcements to upcoming public meetings, and calls for the public to participate in citizen involvement.
Beginning in 2017, the state examined every single municipal water supply and learned that at the time only two exceeded 70 ppt.
Among the most severe examples of PFAS contamination, in addition to Wurtsmith, was the 2018 Tribar manufacturing case polluting the Huron River watershed and impacting Ann Arbor’s drinking water. The contamination led to the implementation of “do not eat” advisories for fish. Water in Ann Arbor required advisories and new filtration systems. In Parchment, PFAS levels 25 times above the 70 ppt threshold were detected in drinking water and traced to an old paper mill that used PFAS to coat grease-proof food wrapping paper.
Hendershott explained that another proactive measure Michigan is taking to deal with PFAS is to head it off at the source at industrial and manufacturing sites. Hendershott said while wastewater treatment plants are not equipped to filter out PFAS, industries that use forever chemicals must filter water waste through granular activated carbon filters onsite before this effluent reaches the wastewater stream.
“We believe that the best solution to (minimizing PFAS in the environment) is to make sure that we cut off the flow at the source. MPART has created an industrial pretreatment initiative, working with all the state’s wastewater treatment plants which take in industrial effluent into their treatment plant. At this stage, wastewater treatment plants have the opportunity to ask those industries to sample for PFAS to pinpoint the source of these chemicals which may be headed to the treatment plants, because these facilities are not designed to remediate and filter out PFAS,” she said.
With this method, Hendershott maintains that it is the polluter and not the water ratepayer that is paying to remove PFAS from the water cycle.
“We want to make sure that it is the industries that use these chemicals in their manufacturing process that are the ones paying to handle PFAS, not the wastewater treatment plants. And this program has been so successful that the EPA is looking to model at a national level.”
Hendershott said that in 2020, Michigan worked to surpass the 70 ppt standard by making it the law that the state’s water supplies needed to meet lower lifetime limits for seven additional forever chemical compounds. They include: PFNA (6 ppt); PFOA (8 ppt); PFOS (16 ppt); PFHxS (51 ppt); GenX (370 ppt); PFBS (420 ppt) and PFHxA (400,000 ppt).
But 3M is suing the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) over these tighter regulations, claiming that EGLE is in violation of the state’s Administrative Procedures Act in failing to estimate the costs of complying with the new state groundwater clean-up standards that would automatically flow from the new PFAS in drinking water limits. As the lawsuit between EGLE and 3M is still in litigation, Hendershott was unable to comment on the issue. However, EGLE maintains that for now, its standards are still law and are being enforced.
In a statement released to Downtown Newsmagazine, EGLE Spokesperson Scott Dean said: “It is disappointing that 3M, one of the major chemical manufacturing companies responsible for bringing PFAS to market, continues to push back on efforts that protect residents from toxic products. While EGLE respectfully disagrees with the court’s decision, we appreciate that it has allowed the health standards to remain in effect while we appeal because the safety of our citizens should not be compromised while the legal process moves forward. Michigan will continue to aggressively work to protect the water we all rely on. The MCLs are still in effect and enforceable. EGLE is prepared to act to ensure that the public and the environment remain protected.”
Michigan Congresswoman Elissa Slotkin (D-Lansing) since 2019 has co-sponsored dozens of bills calling for PFAS and remediation cleanup through her work on the Armed Services Committee. This year, Slotkin said the committee is trying to move four pieces of bipartisan-supported PFAS legislation through Congress to be included in the House version of the National Defense Authorization Act, which is the Pentagon budget, and will see if they are kept in as her committee negotiates a final bill with the Senate.
The bills call for more transparency on the part of the military in the case of their cleanup at the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base in hopes of raising cleanup standards and speeding timelines on other military bases around the country contaminated with PFAS. Slotkin said in the 13 years since PFAS was discovered there, it is difficult for the public to understand what steps the military has taken to remediate the site.
Other pieces of legislation Slotkin hopes will get in the budget are line items that will cover medical expenses for veterans and families who worked and lived on the bases to pay for blood tests to detect PFAS, health care and further restrictions for using PFAS in products purchased by the military. Another piece of legislation calls on the military to adhere to the most stringent drinking water levels to drinking water supplies for the military.
“The military should not be buying products containing PFAS when we know it is unhealthful,” Slotkin said. “Our soldiers have already been exposed. All these pieces of legislation made it into the House bill, and now we will have to wait until the end of the year to see if they make it into the Senate’s version.”
Outside of PFAS’s impact on the military, Slotkin believes the entire nation should have in place a single PFAS drinking water standard that is based on science. Slotkin said it is “ironic” that 3M is coming after Michigan’s drinking water stringencies with a lawsuit while at the same time announcing they will phase out all PFAS manufacturing by 2025.
“3M, after using and producing PFAS for many years, is acknowledging that these chemicals are damaging,” Slotkin said. “Yet they are going after the state of Michigan due to procedural reasons, not because of the science behind Michigan’s decision (to lower PFAS thresholds in drinking water.) So it’s important to note that 3M is not balking at the science. We will see this lawsuit through, and 3M will have to go home and actually compensate the places where they’ve left a complete mess.”
As the country waits for the EPA to review the public comments and finalize the National Primary Drinking Water Regulation, Slotkin said she hoped that the federal government will look to Michigan as a model.
“Michigan’s (PFAS) water standard is based in science,” Slotkin said. “Michigan is at the forefront of identifying PFAS in our water and then doing something about it. My hope is that the federal government will take Michigan’s lead and update its drinking water standards to ones similar to ours. I expect that the EPA will come out with a PFAS response to drinking water at levels that are similar to Michigan’s. This will affect every American if they lower the acceptable PFAS threshold in our drinking water.”
In our homes, a big part of the PFAS puzzle is deciphering where forever chemicals are lurking in the products with which we come into contact every day including new products that come onto the market. Fortunately, there are resources to help you better understand where forever chemicals can be found around the house, and how to best minimize your exposure.
The Environmental Working Group has free downloadable guides on how to avoid PFAS in both consumer products and one’s drinking water and can be found at www.ewg.org/guides.
For a comprehensive understanding of just how PFAS is deployed in consumer goods, head to mamavation.com. The website and blog are the creation of journalist-turned-grassroots consumer watchdog Leah Segedie.
Backed by a scientific advisory council that includes Linda Birnbaum, Scott Belcher and other PFAS researchers, this Californian social media influencer and investigator writes about how to avoid PFAS in everything from backpacks to drinking straws to parchment paper. At the request of her thousands of followers she sends products to an EPA-certified lab to see where PFAS or any other harmful toxins may be hiding that are not reported on consumer labels. To finance her work, she approves and recommends products on her website, and then gets a portion of sales profits and receives funding from the nonprofit Environmental Health News.
Ever since her college days, Segedie has had an obsession with hidden toxic chemicals in the environment and things that are encountered in day-to-day life. As her house was built on a former walnut orchard, she realized that there were traces of the now-banned pesticide DDT in her backyard soil. After participating in a study, it was discovered that traces of DDT were found in strands of her hair. Her father died of asbestos-related mesothelioma and other relatives have died of cancer.
Outside of knowing about PFAS levels in your drinking water, Segedie advises the most effective way to minimize one’s exposure to forever chemicals is avoiding certain food packaging and cutting down on eating fast food.
“For the average person, there’s a couple of places that you can really make an impact,” Segedie said. “One of the most obvious places is your eating habits. In the testing I am doing right now, there is a lot of PFAS in fast food and heat-and-eat packaging. There is PFAS in your fast-food hamburger wrapper that prevents the grease from getting all over. Changes in California are happening lightning fast in this area, which is banning fast food wrappers that contain PFAS. But if your state has no such ban, I advise to cut out fast food and processed food. The more your food is processed by others, the bigger chance there may be traces of PFAS in your food.”
For example, Segedie said in comparing canned tomatoes, tomato sauce, and jars of pasta sauces, there was more likelihood that items labeled “pasta sauce” would have traces of PFAS in the jar.
The Food and Drug Administration has yet to regulate the presence of PFAS in processed food.
According to the watchdog website SaferStates.org, 12 states have banned food packaging containing PFAS, but Michigan is not one of them.
When that tube of mascara runs dry, after you’ve popped that bag of microwave popcorn, the old carpeting gets replaced, or the waterproof raincoat eventually frays, ultimately, these and other PFAS-laden consumer products head to the landfill. There, the products will degrade slowly and will release PFAS into landfill leachate, the liquid runoff that will eventually make its way to our water system.
Matt Reeves is a researcher at Western Michigan University who studies the movement and transport of PFAS in manmade engineered environments, particularly in landfills. His findings, most recently published in the November 2022 issue of the Journal of Current Opinion of Environmental Science and Health, show that once forever chemicals arrive in the landfill, they can transform into even more persistent chemical compounds that are hard to treat in wastewater that eventually makes it to our waterways.
“Once consumer products reach a landfill, they are exposed to precipitation which forms leachate, which must be treated before it heads to a wastewater treatment plant,” Reeves said. “Our research has shown that these substances morph into other even more persistent, stable substances and wastewater treatment plants are not equipped to treat them.”
Reeves said landfill operators are getting pickier about what can be dumped in their facilities, especially if the waste has high amounts of forever chemicals.
He said while some forever chemicals have been phased out, new ones, like Gen X, mainly used in fast food wrappers, may be just as harmful and not thoroughly researched.
On the horizon, the EPA is planning to segment these thousands of chemicals and look at regulating them on a case-by-case basis. This would please manufacturers and industry but is receiving rebuke from top toxicologists such as Birnbaum, the former director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) and the National Toxicology Program and researchers like Reeves.
“We have gone down this whole process of replacing some forever chemicals with others,” explained Reeves. “While some chemicals may have shorter strands of carbons which have replaced longer-stranded ones, they’ve still proven to be toxic. For example, the chemical called Gen X, a replacement chemical that is mainly used in fast food wrappers, is toxic.”
Though Reeves is not a toxicologist, he trusts the peer-reviewed research from his colleagues, who say there’s no point in regulating thousands of these PFAS chemicals one chemical at a time.
“I have read and listened to toxicologists present their findings, and I have yet to see a single PFAS or PFOS chemical that does not cause adverse human health impacts at some concentration. So, I am in favor of regulating them in a single class.”