In response to growing concern regarding per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Michigan’s Department of Health and Human Services announced in September they will begin working together to determine the harmful health effects of PFAS in drinking water on Michigan residents.
PFAS are a wide variety of chemicals produced by manufacturing, industrial and agricultural processes. In Michigan and some other states across the country, PFAS is a growing threat to drinking water. Ann Arbor residents have become increasingly concerned with the levels of PFAS contamination in Washtenaw County, especially in the Huron River. Last May, the city launched a transparency initiative to detail updates on water quality.
The state of Michigan has more sites contaminated with PFAS than any other in the United States. As a result, the CDC and DHHS will examine PFAS exposure in Parchment/Cooper Township and North Kent County.
In a September press release, Patrick Breysse, director of the CDC’s National Center for Environmental Health, said the effort would help researchers learn more about the effects of PFAS exposure.
“There is much that is unknown about the health effects of exposure to these chemicals,” Breysse wrote. “The multi-site study will advance the scientific evidence on the human health effects of PFAS and provide some answers to communities exposed to the contaminated drinking water.”
Terese Olson, professor of civil and environmental engineering, said PFAS contamination is ultimately a sustainability issue.
“Here you have emissions of these compounds in the environment that aren’t going to go anywhere,” Olson said. “And (they) will only build up. It makes no sense. It’s unsustainable.”
Due to PFAS resistance to things like grease and water, PFAS have been used for stain-resistant materials and cleaning products. However, because of their incredibly strong carbon-fluorine bonds, PFAS are not easily broken down, leading to elevated levels of PFAS in food, water, and the human body. Exposure to PFAS could increase cancer risk and cholesterol levels, as well as impede child development.
Of the 30 groundwater samples taken in Saline at the Washtenaw Industrial Facility, 24 were reported to have PFAS levels either greater than or equal to the standard allowed by the Environmental Protection Agency, which is 70 parts per trillion.
These high levels are not restricted to Saline. For LSA senior Tyler Schaub, this news hit close to home. His hometown of Muskegon has also experienced levels much higher than the EPA standard.
“I’m originally from Muskegon, Michigan,” Schaub said. “And there’s been households in Muskegon, Michigan, that have had (levels) up to 400 plus.”
The city has provided water bottles and filters to some of the homes affected. Olson explained how different cities react to PFAS contamination, such as the city of Parchment switching over to Kalamazoo’s water sources.
“There’s also even community systems that have discovered that there’s a contamination source, and their levels were higher than what they realize or what they thought,” Olson said. “And in those cases — the city of Parchment was one such city — what they did was abandon their water source and hook up to the city of Kalamazoo. So communities have adjusted to these situations in various ways depending on how it’s surfaced.”
In spite of these adjustments, the lingering damage of PFAS ingested by humans and accumulated by the environment is a pressing concern.
LSA junior Luke McGill, who is studying environmental science, echoed the unease regarding facing the unknown.
“We know it’s in the environment and can get into our drinking water, and like you said it’s above EPA standards in some places,” McGill said. “We just don’t know what that’s going to do. So I think that’s concerning that it’s already in us or it already has the possibility to affect us.”
The city of Ann Arbor, however, has been proactive regarding the safety of its drinking water by utilizing granular activated carbon to maintain the city’s PFAS levels, which are currently below 10 ppt.
Olson explained how this filter is used to prevent certain contaminants from remaining in the city’s drinking water.
“They need it there for particle filtration to remove particles,” Olson said. “What it is is an activated charcoal type of media basically and it’s granular. They have beds of it through which the water flows through. And it’s used to remove particles. It’s also used to remove organic matter coming just through the facility of a more generic type.”
Regarding what other citizens can do to help curb the environmental crisis, Schaub recommended better education on the issues.
“I think staying educated on the subject and not being honed in too much on just your own specific surroundings,” Schaub said. “Be cognizant of the entire state’s affair.”