A Michigan congressional delegation introduced a bipartisan bill to designate per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known as PFAS, detected across the state as hazardous substances, allowing the Environmental Protection Agency to direct funds to cleaning up polluted sites.
The so-called “forever chemicals” have been found in water sources throughout Michigan, including in Ann Arbor. Consumption of PFAS compounds, even in low levels, can lead to health problems, affecting the immune system and increasing the risk of cancer, among other things.
The PFAS Action Act, written by U.S. Reps. Debbie Dingell, D-Ann Arbor, Dan Kildee, D-Flint, and U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, would allow the EPA to clean up sites contaminated by all PFAS chemicals as part of the Superfund program, a federal effort to address pollutants that pose a risk to human health or the environment.
In a press release, the lawmakers noted an “urgency and need to act” to address PFAS. Dingell, whose district includes Ann Arbor, said the chemicals were a growing problem.
“Michigan has been hit hard by PFAS,” Dingell said. “It’s clear it’s a threat to human health and our environment. It’s been found in our drinking water, air, food and consumer products. Our bipartisan legislation will list all PFAS as the hazardous chemicals we know they are and give the EPA the tools it needs to clean up contaminated sites.”
Currently, the EPA does not list PFAS as hazardous substances — only as an “emerging contaminant.” For several decades, the chemicals in the PFAS family were used in industrial and consumer products, such as waterproof clothing, food wrappers, Teflon pans and fire-fighting foam.
According to the Michigan Environmental Council, there are 36 confirmed PFAS sites in the state. However, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality estimates more than 11,300 locations statewide may be contaminated.
Brian Steglitz, the manager of Ann Arbor’s water treatment plant, said part of the problem is that because the compounds are so durable, they do not break down naturally.
“Many, many products that we use every day, these chemicals are in, and because they’re so stable they get into the environment when you wash your pots and pans and clothes, and the firefighting foam can get into a storm sewer,” Steglitz said. “They’re very persistent. They don’t break down very easily, and because of that they’re in the watershed, and in our particular case they’re in the Huron River watershed.”
Ann Arbor has seen a spike recently in PFAS levels in its drinking water, but Steglitz said there were systems in place to closely monitor and remove the compounds.
“For meeting what the current water quality standards are, we are doing that,” Steglitz said. “We’re actually well exceeding what the current standards or guidance is for addressing it and we’re using the best available technology that’s currently on the market to remove these compounds in the municipal drinking water facility.”
The EPA set the health advisory level for two harmful PFAS compounds — PFOA and PFOS — at 70 parts-per-trillion in 2016. However, in May, Politico reported on a study from the Department of Health and Human Services that would have recommended making the safety level for PFAS in drinking water six times lower than the existing standard that was being held up by the Trump administration.
In November, lab tests showed a combined PFOS and PFOA level of 56.40 ppt in Ann Arbor. The next month, tests said none of the compounds were found. However, because of an administrative error at the lab contracted to examine the samples, the analysis used a method with higher limits for detection and tested for fewer compounds than requested, and failed to meet the city’s parameters.
Other Michigan lawmakers have voiced concern about the chemicals as well. In late December, Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., sent a letter to Andrew Wheeler, the acting director of the EPA, urging the agency to craft a plan for dealing with PFAS. Peters asked for swift action to address the problem.
“In my state of Michigan, the more we look for PFAS the more we find,” Peters wrote. “… To date, chemicals have been found at some level in the drinking water serving more than two million people around the state, and I fully expect that number to continue to climb. Dozens of contaminated sites are found in both the Upper and Lower peninsulas, in both urban and rural areas.”
Laura Rubin, vice chair of the School for Environment and Sustainability at the University of Michigan and the executive director of Huron River Watershed Council, praised the city’s efforts, saying it had taken a proactive stance in dealing with the issue.
“The city of Ann Arbor right now has taken a pretty aggressive stance,” Rubin said. “They run the drinking water plants that provide drinking water to about 120,000 residents in Ann Arbor and the surrounding area. They’ve been monitoring their drinking water intake for a couple of years now.”
The city uses granular-activated carbon filtration to remove PFAS from drinking water. The Water Research Foundation awarded the city a grant in 2018 to research and refine techniques to screen out the compounds. Steglitz said Ann Arbor has started employing a new type of carbon in its filters as part of the pilot program.
“We piloted this technology in 2017 and now we are sequentially going through and putting this new granular-activated carbon in all of our filters,” Steglitz said. “We have 26 filters and we can’t do it all at one time because we have to continue to do this while the plant is in service, so we’re doing a third at a time, and we’ve already done one-third of the filters, and that was successful and those filters are showing non-detectable levels of these two PFAS compounds.”
However, Rubin said other types of water contamination could cause problems for Michigan residents, in Ann Arbor and elsewhere.
“They should be concerned,” Rubin said. “There are a host of pollutants that are being discovered in our water, in our rivers and our lakes, and we’re just learning about the severe health impacts that these pollutants have. And it’s not just PFAS, it’s a whole host of chemicals and pollutants that have been used in manufacturing that are starting to really start affecting our drinking water and our health. Residents in Michigan, because we have such a heavy manufacturing, they should be concerned about this."