Sierra Club hosts talk on PFAS contamination in Michigan

Tuesday, April 16, 2019 - 10:56pm

Brian Steglitz, Manager of Water Treatment Services for the City of Ann Arbor, speaks at Matthew Gardens Tuesday evening regarding PFAS, man-made chemicals that have contaminated the Huron River and other waterways

Brian Steglitz, Manager of Water Treatment Services for the City of Ann Arbor, speaks at Matthew Gardens Tuesday evening regarding PFAS, man-made chemicals that have contaminated the Huron River and other waterways Buy this photo
Kelsey Pease/Daily

On Tuesday, the Huron Valley Group of the Sierra Club hosted a presentation at the Matthaei Botanical Gardens Auditorium addressing the per- and polyfluoroalkyl crisis in Michigan. The presentation featured Christy McGillivray, Great Lakes state organizer for the Sierra Club, and Brian Steglitz, manager of water treatment services for the city of Ann Arbor.

The presentation began with McGillivray defining PFAS and identifying its properties and uses. Known as “forever chemicals,” PFAS is a class of chemicals that is waterproof, greaseproof and fireproof. They are often found in industrial and consumer products such as fire fighting foam, non-stick cookware and stain-resistant fabrics.

McGillivray then discussed the health risks associated with PFAS, such as cancer and immune system weakening.

“There is a little bit of debate about the toxicity,” McGillivray said. “However, there is a study called the C8 study, which is one of the largest academic studies conducted on human health, and in that study they found very clear links between PFAS, thyroid problems, cancer, digestive problems, immune system suppression.”

According to McGillivray, PFAS contamination is a widespread problem across the U.S.with 172 known PFAS contamination sites across 40 states.

McGillivray said the main sources of PFAS contamination are the production, distribution and usage of firefighting foams; emissions from industrial sites; and creation of paper packagings. She also mentioned the main sources through which humans are impacted by PFAS such as drinking water, food, textiles and food packages.

McGillivray then discussed the current status of federal and local policies addressing the PFAS issue. Though there is a voluntary ban on the production of PFOS and PFOA within the industry and a non-binding drinking water advisory model for PFAS, there is no oversight in the use of PFAS in consumer products or firefighting.

“There are (oversight policies) on the state level,” McGillivray said. “But on the federal level, there is nothing.”

The presentation went on to show some of the recent sites of PFAS contamination in Michigan, including the communities of Parchment and Oscoda.

McGillivray reviewed Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s strategy for addressing the issue. Whitmer issued an executive order in March, which directed the Department of Environmental Quality to establish a new maximum contamination level of PFAS for drinking water.

McGillivray ended her presentation by going through the difficulties of disposing PFAS.

“We can’t get rid of it,” McGillivray said. “We don’t know how to yet. If it goes into a landfill, it’s going to come out as leachate. Incineration is not going to break it down, and it’s going to produce more harmful chemicals; deepwell doesn’t really do anything. There are some new scientific researches on the horizon, I don’t know about them. So disposal is still a huge issue.”

Following McGillivray’s presentation, Steglitz discussed the historical development of PFAS monitoring and the current stance of the city of Ann Arbor on the issue. Steglitz examined the development of PFAS detection technology in the past decade.

“These are incredibly small quantities that we are currently capable of finding,” Steglitz said. “One analogy I’d like to use is that we are now able to test these chemicals at one drop in 20 Olympic sized pools.”

Steglitz discussed how PFAS is often needed in firefighting due to its fireproof property, and emphasized the importance of researching to find a non-toxic substitute for PFAS.

One possible solution Steglitz brought up is a granular activated carbon filter system. His plan included replacing 21 municipal water filters in Michigan, costing roughly $450,000 annually, which is triple the current expense on carbon filters.

The current level of PFAS in Ann Arbor’s drinking water is around less than 10 parts per trillion, which is below the 70 ppt health advisory level.

“The DEQ requires monitor four times a year,” Steglitz said. “We monitor twice a month. It is a decision we made because we want to make sure we provide our customers with the information they want to know.”

LSA freshman William Brown was impressed by the level of attention the city of Ann Arbor has put into addressing the PFAS issue.

“What I found really interesting is that the city of Ann Arbor is going above and beyond of what the federal regulatory systems are,” Brown said. “And they are making an effort that all the customers in Ann Arbor are doing well.”

LSA sophomore Ryan Woock agreed the initiative Ann Arbor took to address the issue was new and interesting.

“It seems like this is a very local issue,” Woock said. “During the presentation, they said they don’t really expect the (Environmental Protection Agency) to do a lot of stuff. So they have taken it upon themselves to solve it on a state and local level.”

Steglitz reassured the audience that the filtering system in Ann Arbor is enough to ensure the well-being of all customers and additional filtration is not necessary.

“I drink city of Ann Arbor water without any filtration,” Steglitz said. “I am a city customer. But if you are concerned and you are looking to make PFAS level in your water zero, you are looking at not carbon filters, you are probably looking at more expensive treatment. We at this point don’t see any need for our customers to have any home treatment.”