As attendees walked into the Emerging Drinking Water Contaminants Panel at Ford School of Public Policy on Wednesday afternoon, they were greeted with pizza, salad and voter registration forms. 

Panelist James Clift, deputy director at the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE), explained the role of the word “emerging” in the name of the event. 

“Contaminants have been around for a long time,” Clift said. “It’s usually an emerging understanding of what this contaminant means to us as humans.”

One of the types of chemicals currently under the public eye is perfluorooctanoic acid (PFAS), which is a group of manufactured chemicals that have been found in water. According to panelist John Meeker, professor and associate dean for research in the School of Public Health, it has been found to have negative effects on immunity, thyroid, liver, cholesterol and fetal development. 

Several of the panelists said Michigan’s government was ahead of the curve on PFAS and other water regulation policies compared to other state governments. They also mentioned the implications of the federal government’s inactivity regarding updating water care policy. 

Sara Hughes, an assistant professor at the School for Environment and Sustainability (SEAS), was one of the panelists. Her research focuses on the political and institutional dimensions of water and climate change policies, specifically in an urban context. 

“It is really exciting that the state of Michigan is acting ahead of the federal government and ahead of most other state governments,” Hughes said. “It’s a pretty exciting thing, and fun to watch, but we don’t want to give up on federal action by the EPA.” 

In relation to federal inactivity, Meeker explained the risk assessment process and how it relates to water contamination research. The process involves three steps: hazard identification, dose-response and exposure assessment. He particularly criticized how the United States addresses hazard identification, treating chemicals as “innocent until proven guilty.” 

Charlotte Jameson, program director of Energy and Drinking Water Policy and Legislative Affairs for Michigan Environmental Council, described the passive way the nation deals with hazardous chemicals, noting the difficulty of having such a large number of potentially dangerous chemicals in existence.

“In the U.S., we do not follow precautionary principles when it comes to chemicals of concern,” Jameson said. “You and I, we’re all guinea pigs for toxic chemicals, and there are thousands of them that are in commercial products right now that we don’t have sound information on.”

Environment and Sustainability graduate student Colin Welk is currently taking EAS 558: Water Policy and Politics, a class taught by Hughes. 

“It seems like this is definitely the next area in water policy,” Welk said. “I’m interested to learn more about contaminants and how they’re regulated.”

According to panelist Eric Oswald, director of the Drinking Water and Environmental Health Division of the Michigan EGLE Department, Ann Arbor has a well-funded and well-managed drinking water system. However, most other systems in the state don’t have the funds to follow in Ann Arbor’s footsteps, and even with the changes made, Ann Arbor is still far from contaminant-free. 

The event ended with a Q&A session with the panelists. Attendees asked about the quantitative measures of sources of contaminants, the feasibility of other cities making the changes Ann Arbor has and which contaminants citizens should be focused on. 

The final question inquired which other states, municipalities or utility districts the panelists thought were leading the change. According to the panelists, on the state level, it was Michigan.

In the closing remarks, Public Policy graduate student James VanSteel, acting president of the Environmental Policy Association and mediator for this event, and the panelists encouraged citizens to leave public comments on the Michigan Environmental Council website

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