Dave Dempsey: It’s raining PFAS in the Sleeping Bear Dunes

July 2, 2021 4:10 am

Sleeping Bear Dunes | Susan J. Demas

Every now and then, an environmental news headline jumps out at you as though it was printed in 12-inch lettering on a newspaper front page or website. That personal reaction comes not because the news is a surprise, but because it is a symbol.

Lake Huron | Dave Dempsey

“It’s Raining ‘Forever Chemicals’ in the Great Lakes,” said one website recently.

Not only that, but the chemicals discussed in the story are being detected at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, just 25 miles down the road from where I live near Traverse City. That’s a finding of new data from the Great Lakes International Atmospheric Deposition Network (IADN), which has been monitoring the fallout of chemicals like PCBs and DDT since the mid-1990s.

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) have been used in everything from firefighting foams to waterproof clothing. They have been linked in animal studies with an increased risk of certain cancers, low birth weight, delayed puberty onset, elevated cholesterol levels, and reduced immunologic responses to vaccination.  

IADN has found PFAS at potential levels of concern at all six monitoring sites where the data have been gathered. 

So PFAS join the ranks of PCBs, DDT, chlordane, dieldrin, PBDEs and other chemicals that IADN has been monitoring as they fall out of the atmosphere onto the Great Lakes.

While disturbing on its face, the news of PFAS in rain does not mean we are being poisoned directly by the raindrops that fall on our skin. It’s still safe to go out in the rain, if you don’t mind getting wet. But it does mean PFAS are everywhere, and that the atmosphere is conveying it from places where they are used and released into the environment to places scores or hundreds of miles away. And that means more PFAS building up in those places and, slowly, in our bodies.

Anthony Spaniola

Michigan has a sad heritage of toxic environmental substances affecting human health, from PBB in food in the 1970s to lead poisoning in the drinking water of Flint just a few years ago. Michigan should be a national leader in ending the toxic cycle of chemicals that are banned, only to be replaced by another batch of toxic chemicals. Not so long ago, Michigan became the first state to ban most uses of DDT and one of the first to ban PCBs and chlordane. We can do it again if there is political will.

When we find toxic materials literally raining onto sacred places, we are doing something deeply wrong. And if we ever become numb to it, we are doing something even more deeply wrong.

When we think of Sleeping Bear Dunes, do we want to think of a vast panorama of sky, sand and water – or of invisible chemicals falling down on that breathtaking scene?

Apathy is not an option. Only citizen demands of government, and human persistence that surpasses the persistence of PFAS, will get us out of this predicament.

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Dave Dempsey
Dave Dempsey

Dave Dempsey is currently Senior Policy Advisor at FLOW (For Love of Water), an environmental law and policy center in Traverse City. He has 35 years' experience in environmental policy. He served as environmental advisor to former Michigan Gov. James Blanchard and as policy advisor on the staff of the International Joint Commission. He has also provided policy support to the Michigan Environmental Council and Clean Water Action. He has authored several books on the Great Lakes and water protection.