PFAS water contamination rampant in Michigan

Dean Vaglia, Staff Reporter

The Great Lakes State cannot catch a break.

In a recent Pew Research Center poll, the majority of Americans feel the federal government has not been doing a sufficient job to protect water (69 percent) and air quality (64 percent), while 67 percent believe not enough has been done to prevent climate change.

For the 69 percent unsatisfied about water, Michigan is one state where fingers can be pointed. It is no secret that water is a fiery topic in Michigan. Between Flint’s water woes and Nestle’s contract to extract water from Michigan and the Nestle TV ad that brings the controversies together, water is on Michiganders’ minds.

And since two issues were not enough, the man-made toxic chemical group “per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances” (PFAS) has been found in Michigan waters. Chemicals from the group have been found around industrial areas, military installations and firefighter training areas.

“[PFAS has] been used in a variety of household products beginning in the 1950s,” said Oakland University student Red Douglas, who is studying PFAS for her master’s thesis. “[PFAS] stopped being produced in the United States in the 2000s, but they are still being used overseas and can be imported in various products.”

Appearing in items like non-stick cookware and waterproof textiles and leather clothing, PFAS water contamination has become known for the dangerous effects it can have when ingested, which has become more common in Michigan.

The C8 Health Project, established as a result of the court case Jack W. Leach, et al. v. E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Company, collected data on PFAS contamination in the Ohio River Valley. The findings of the C8 study provide the groundwork for PFAS researchers today.

According to the study, PFAS contamination damage starts at the molecular level.

“Once [PFAS] is consumed it attaches to fatty organs,” Douglas said. “[PFAS contamination] can be tied to thyroid disruption, testicular cancer, kidney cancer, hypertension, preeclampsia and high cholesterol. Once [PFAS] attaches itself to these predominantly fatty organs, it tends to stay there for some time — three to five years is the most recent I have read on the half-lives of [PFAS chemicals].”

Currently the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has set a safe level of lifetime PFAS ingestion at 70 parts per trillion (ppt), though the EPA number is disputed by researchers. In Rockford, Mich., PFAS is being found at 70,000 ppt.

While some actions have been taken at the state level — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has directed state medical personnel to focus on the PFAS issue — some Michiganders may believe that it is not enough of a priority.

For students wishing to seek further action, OU political science professor Dr. Pat Piskulich recommended going to the grassroots.

“[Students should] monitor what is going on in their feed and figure out who is engaging the issue,” Piskulich said. “Go to any gatherings you can find — and they are not hard to identify, but if you can get there, you should to see what people are talking about, what kind of plans they have and get involved in the environmental community that is trying to fight back against what are often corporate polluters.”

PFAS contamination in Michigan is an ongoing story. Any information in this story is subject to change as new information on the issue is revealed.