The School of Public Health held a lecture Tuesday evening addressing Michigan’s investigations and response to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) contaminating sources of drinking water. The keynote speaker at the lecture was Betsy Wasilevich, a senior epidemiologist at the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. The audience consisted of about 30 people, including students and faculty members. 

The lecture started off with Wasilevich introducing PFAS and talking about a few of its sources. 

“PFAS is a group of chemicals, over a thousand analytes of these types of chemicals, they are incredibly stable, have a generally long half-life, they break down slowly and they bioaccumulate,” Wasilevich said. “We all have some level of exposure to PFAS. Teflon coating, fire-fighting foams, food packaging. It is also in the water.”

Wasilevich highlighted the challenges in addressing PFAS, which is an emerging contaminant. Experts are unsure how PFAS exposure impacts people clinically, Wasilevich said. 

“Sometimes it means that our lab testing procedures are not as refined,” Wasilevich said. “We are learning and evolving those procedures to test for new analytes. We also don’t have a clear sense, at least for PFAS, about the clinical implications of being exposed. That makes the risk of communication very challenging.”

Wasilevich then proceeded to talk about the public health obligations of the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team.

“We have a public health obligation, so once (MPART) identifies contaminated sites, we intervene to try to reduce or remove that exposure, protecting public health,” Wasilevich said. “If we locate a contaminated site, we will replace that water either with bottled water or will shift the water source, and we will also distribute filters.”

Wasilevich spoke about how PFAS contamination affects communities and how MPART assuages the fears of a contaminated community.

“When a community is affected with a contaminant, they become very fearful. It’s out of their control that they’ve been exposed, and they want answers, and they deserve answers,” Wasilevich said. “We go into town halls frequently for health education to let them know about their testing. We create a very strong presence in the communities that are affected.”

Wasilevich also talked about MPART’s surface water investigations where they check for PFAS levels in fish and wastewater.

“We do some surface water investigations,” Wasilevich said. “We test fish in the water and address PFAS foam in the water, and we test our wastewater as well, and based on what we find, we put in public health advisories.”

Public Health senior Anna Tankersley commented on possible improvements MPART could make in its response to PFAS.

“I think that they are doing a really good job, but I’d like to see them be a little more transparent about it,” Tankersley said. “I’d like to see more publications, kind of publicly available. Overall, I’d like to see the studies to see what they’re doing.”

Wasilevich spoke about where MPART is presently in their area of assessment.

“We are currently analyzing the data. We are pulling together a preliminary report for the community to share with them before the end of the year,” Wasilevich said. “Hopefully, we’ll be able to share the full report by the end of the next year.”

Wasilevich further spoke about MPART’s expansion plans, including a five-year grant to establish two new biomonitoring initiatives in Michigan. 

Meredith McGehee, a senior administrative assistant at the School of Public Health’s Department of Epidemiology, commented on Michigan’s response to the PFAS presence. 

“They’re doing a great job,” McGehee said. “They’ve got the steps down in the right order, they are doing the testing, and they have two studies that are in their first stages.”

The event came to an end with a Q&A session. The first question asked involved how MPART planned to address the clustering of samples. Wasilevich responded that MPART aimed to statistically address the issue of clustering, for example analyzing households rather than individuals. 

“One of the things that we’ve done in the North Kent County assessment is use households as a means of analysis as opposed to individuals,” Wasilevich said. “So, there are some statistical means that we might employ to address that.”

Wasilevich was further asked how the researchers planned to boost enrollment in the study. 

“We are going to do a lot of non-targeted recruitment as well as targeted recruitment in the community,” Wasilevich said. “We are incentivizing with gift cards. We’re hoping that helps.”

In an interview with The Daily after the event, Wasilevich addressed the struggles MPART faces in recruiting people to participate in studies. 

“One of the challenges is to make sure we have people across the spectrum of possible exposure,” Wasilevich said. “One of the things we also had struggles with when we did a random sample of participants in North Kent County was that we didn’t include everyone, which meant that some people who wanted to participate couldn’t.”

Wasilevich also commented on how Michigan’s response to the threat of PFAS has been exemplary and what needs to be done in the future.

“We are doing so much. It’s really been gratifying, in a way, to be a part of something that is so comprehensive and has all these state agencies participating in,” Wasilevich said. “We need to continue to do these kinds of investigations and direct funding to support it.”

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