Confronting the “Forever Chemical”

Michigan’s Experience with PFAS Offers Lessons for the Rest of the Nation

Michigan residents and the National Wildlife Federation’s advocacy scored a major win in July, with the announcement of new regulations limiting harmful chemicals in drinking water. The new rules limit seven per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) in some 2,700 public drinking water supplies around the state and set stronger safe water standards than the current (voluntary) federal guidelines.

The rules also improve Michigan’s existing PFAS standards for Michigan’s aquifer remediation efforts, which already limited two of the most common PFAS chemicals (PFOS and PFOA). Michigan’s fledgling efforts to combat PFAS contamination are a good first step (although there are many steps left to go) and provide lessons for other states as well as the federal government.

PFASs are a family of over 4,000 human-made chemical compounds manufactured and used in a variety of consumer products since the 1940s. Because they are extremely durable and resistant to water, oils, and heat, they are widely used in common items like cookware, cleaning products, shoes, fabrics, and food packaging. PFASs are also found in firefighting foams used at airports, military bases, and refineries.

PFAS chemicals cycle through the environment in the air, water, soil, and sediments—and can eventually accumulate in fish, wildlife, and people. Image: The Science and Policy of PFASs in the Great Lakes Region: A Roadmap for Local, State and Federal Action

The same properties that make PFASs so effective in snow pants, firefighting, pizza boxes, and omelet pans also make them disastrous for the environment. They don’t break down readily, and can linger in the environment for years, which is why they are called “forever chemicals.” And they are highly toxic. Even at relatively low levels, PFASs have been linked to a variety of health problems in humans and wildlife, including:

  • Cancers
  • Liver and thyroid disease
  • Immune system disorders

These forever chemicals are not just deadly; they are everywhere. A study by The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found PFAS chemicals present in the bodies of over 98% of participants, a sample representative of the U.S. population as a whole. PFASs are widespread throughout the Great Lakes region and the entire United States, and Michigan is now somewhat of the proverbial canary in the coalmine.

Do not eat the Fish due to high amounts of PFASs.
The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services issued an advisory against eating any fish from the Huron River. Photo: Mike Shriberg

Michigan is among the states with the most known locations showing high levels of PFASs, largely because it has been searching for them aggressively and for longer than most other states. As of August of 2020, the state had identified 138 contaminated sites, including 44 landfills, 18 electrochemical plating sites, 12 chemical and other manufacturing plants, and 12 military sites. In 2018 the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services issued an advisory against eating any fish from the Huron River and other bodies of water in five counties near Detroit.

This hits home for me as my house is within walking distance of the Huron and it’s where my family and I go for recreation (as well as for most of our drinking water through the city of Ann Arbor). The state of Michigan has also advised against consuming any wildlife in Oscoda Township’s Clark’s Marsh area near the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base, where firefighting foam containing PFAS chemicals was used for many years.

Nationwide Implications

While their efforts started later than Michigan’s, other states in the Great Lakes region have begun taking steps to address PFAS contamination. Minnesota, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin have all banned the use of firefighting foams containing PFASs in various circumstances. In Minnesota, proposed legislation would ban the manufacture and sale of food packaging containing PFASs and require the establishment of PFAS water quality standards. Wisconsin is in the process of developing PFAS standards for groundwater, surface water, and drinking water.

The problem is not unique to the Great Lakes region. There are currently well over 2,000 sites in 49 states known to be contaminated with potentially dangerous levels of PFASs, and the chemicals have been found in drinking water supplies in at least 43 states. However, the Great Lakes region may be uniquely vulnerable since so much of the country and world’s fresh water is in this region.

Much more remains to be done to protect communities and wildlife from these hazardous chemicals in Michigan and across the country. While the Clean Water Act and the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA—also known as Superfund) provides PFAS guidelines states can apply for surface water and groundwater, there are currently no mandatory federal standards in place. The National Wildlife Federation has called on the federal government to establish nationwide binding PFAS standards that protect all people and all wildlife. Surface water, private wells, and public drinking water supplies must all be free of these deadly chemicals.

As state and federal agencies work to combat PFAS contamination, there is much they can learn from Michigan’s experience, even if Michigan needs to be more aggressive in addressing the PFAS crisis. In 2019 Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued an executive order creating the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team (MPART), a collaborative of seven state agencies working together for coordinated state action. This kind of interagency cooperation has enhanced Michigan’s response, but it is insufficient in the absence of adequate support and resources from the federal government.

The Science and Policy of PFASs in the Great Lakes Region report.

To outline the actions needed, the National Wildlife Federation published a report in September of 2019, The Science and Policy of PFASs in the Great Lakes Region: A Roadmap for Local, State and Federal Action, outlining the perils of PFASs and strategies for addressing them, including:

  • Setting and enforcing water protections, using the federal Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act.
  • Modernizing wastewater and drinking water infrastructure and cleaning up of polluted sites through programs like Superfund.
  • Supporting expanded research to provide data needed for effective policy decisions.

While states are currently leading the charge, with Michigan as one of the leaders among them, it is critical that Congress and the federal government also demonstrate leadership on PFASs. The contamination of our drinking water, fish, and wildlife in nearly every state in the union is a national problem that demands a national solution. So, let’s learn from Michigan’s example, and begin to address this effectively and systematically as every person and all wildlife deserve access to clean, safe water.