When we think about recent environmental disasters, Flint, Michigan’s water quality crisis quickly comes to mind. But the Great Lakes State has another pollution problem that is less well known outside the state. For at least the last 70 years, Michigan manufacturers and others released chemical-laden waste into the environment. This waste contained PFAS, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, that entered the ground and water supplies and are found today, at potentially unsafe levels, in a number of drinking water supplies across the state.
PFAS are a broad class of common chemicals used in a variety of industries. These man-made chemicals are found in food packaging, stain- and water-repellent fabrics, nonstick cookware, and cleaning products. They include toxic compounds that can accumulate in the environment and in living organisms, including fish, animals, and humans. The strength of the fluorine-carbon bond, which makes PFAS valuable in chemically resistant and durable materials, like stain repellants, also explains why they persist in the environment and in living things, and why they are so difficult to get rid of.
There is evidence that exposure to PFAS may lead to adverse health outcomes in humans. The most-studied PFAS chemicals are PFOA and PFOS. Studies indicate that these chemicals can cause reproductive and developmental, liver and kidney, and immunological effects in laboratory animals. The most consistent findings in epidemiologic studies are increased cholesterol levels among exposed populations, with more limited findings related to low infant birth weight, immunological effects, cancer (for PFOA), and thyroid hormone disruption (for PFOS).
In response to the growing problem of PFAS contaminating drinking water supplies in communities in Michigan, Governor Rick Snyder created a multi-agency response effort to address the problem in the Fall of 2017. The Michigan PFAS Action Response Team (MPART) is led by former Michigan deputy attorney general Carol Isaacs and includes Brown University School of Public Health professor of epidemiology David Savitz, Ph.D., the team’s academic advisor.
Savitz has experience in this area. In 2005 he was part of a science panel set up as a result of a Mid-Ohio Valley lawsuit against Dupont. A Dupont-owned manufacturing facility had caused environmental contamination that exposed some 70 thousand people to elevated levels of PFAS and PFOA in various drinking water supplies. The science panel found evidence supporting a link between those exposures and adverse health outcomes, including elevated rates of kidney cancer, testicular cancer, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disorders, elevated cholesterol, and elevated blood pressure during pregnancy.
According to Savitz, essentially all people are exposed to some level of PFAS. “They were widely distributed in the environment, which is why—even in the absence of a specific source—all the water supplies in the country have some low levels of these chemicals, and all the people across the world have at least some low levels of these chemicals in their blood.
“In Michigan, as in basically any other state in the country, if you systematically go through the water supplies—not just the ones that are near known sources of contamination, but when you go methodically through them all—it’s almost inevitable that you will find some that you hadn’t been aware of before, and that’s what’s happened in Michigan,” Savitz explained.
By the end of 2017, twenty-eight locations across Michigan, and rising, had been found contaminated with these potentially health-harming chemicals.
“To safeguard Michiganders from this emerging contaminant,” Governor Synder said, “it’s critical that responding agencies at all levels are effectively communicating and coordinating efforts.” The PFAS Action Response Team is an important part of those efforts.
The team will establish protocols and best practices, ensuring the contaminants are addressed comprehensively. Indeed, according to Savitz, Michigan is ahead of other states in identifying the PFAS problem.
“The extent to which the state government has been proactive has been quite impressive,” Savitz said. “They’ve been very proactive. They want the best scientific information they can get. They are in no way downplaying it or avoiding it. They’re going to look at every water supply in the state to find problems if they exist and manage those problems. There’s no reason to think these are more common in Michigan or there’s a bigger problem in Michigan. They’ve simply been more up front about it.”