Oscoda Township Supervisor Aaron Weed at Clark’s Marsh, a PFAS site | Michael Gerstein
A July study from researchers at the U.S. Geological Survey found that roughly 45% of water samples contain at least one form of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), commonly known as “forever chemicals” that can have detrimental effects on the health of people exposed to them.
The risks of PFAS aren’t news to researchers or to the nearly 1.5 million Michiganders that the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) estimates have been drinking from water sources contaminated by the chemicals. U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Ann Arbor) said in a statement that Michigan is all too familiar with the ways PFAS can harm people who come into contact with them.
“PFAS are a threat to the health and wellbeing of people across the country, especially in heartland communities like the ones I represent,” Dingell said. “We know that PFAS contribute to adverse health effects including increased cholesterol levels, changes in liver enzymes, decreases in infant birth weights, and increased risk of certain cancers.”
Michigan State University’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources houses the Center for PFAS Research, headed by Cheryl Murphy. Murphy’s team has been evaluating ways to identify, measure and understand the impacts of PFAS in Michigan and across the country.
“We have to develop methods of measuring all these chemicals and figuring out where they’re being found,” Murphy said. “So we have to develop standards for measuring it in water, but also in blueberries and meat and cheese and in everything, really.”
PFAS first became pervasive in the U.S. after its discovery for industrial use in the 1940s, but the health impacts of the chemicals didn’t become apparent until almost two decades later, when workers initially exposed to them began showing signs of contamination through illness. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) maintains that it was not alerted of the risks of PFAS until 1998.
Murphy said that the chemical makeup of PFAS is what makes it so threatening – its longevity both inside and out of the human body makes the health risks extremely difficult to prevent once someone has been contaminated.
“These are contaminants that have been produced for several decades and released into the environment and really kind of gone unchecked,” Murphy said. “The problem with these chemicals themselves is that they don’t break down – they’re characterized by having this really strong carbon fluorine bond, which is one of the strongest bonds in chemistry.”
Since the risks of PFAS contamination became public knowledge, states have taken action to ban or heavily restrict the use of these chemicals in various capacities. Despite a lack of federal legislation on PFAS, a handful of states have banned its use in products ranging from cosmetics to furniture to cleaning products. In 2021, Maine became the first state to ban use of PFAS “unless absolutely essential.”
While Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration has committed to only buying PFAS-free products, Michigan still lags in legislative action on banning the chemicals. State Sen. Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor) introduced legislation in May that would prohibit use of PFAS in food packaging, but SB 327 hasn’t moved out of the Senate Energy and Environment Committee.
At the federal level, Dingell has already been defeated once in passing bills regulating PFAS, but she said she’s prepared to reintroduce her previously-struck down legislation and work alongside President Joe Biden to make removal of the chemicals a national priority.
“The detection of PFAS in nearly half of drinking water samples is alarming, indicates we are well past studying this problem, and underscores the need to act urgently to protect the public from these dangerous chemicals,” Dingell said. “I will re-introduce the PFAS Action Act soon to enact strong regulations and will continue to work with the Biden Administration on their PFAS Strategic Roadmap to remove forever chemicals from our products, our environment, and our water.”
In Michigan, EGLE estimates there are as many as 11,300 sites across the state where PFAS has been used and therefore put residents at risk of contamination. Murphy said that living near a contamination site is one of the easiest ways to be impacted, and that many people don’t realize they’re at risk.
Some of the most contaminated people can be (those) that are living around contaminated sites. So airports or manufacturing companies or military bases that have been using these chemicals and just releasing them into the environment.
– Cheryl Murphy, head of the Center for PFAS Research at Michigan State University’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources
“Some of the most contaminated people can be [those] that are living around contaminated sites,” Murphy said. “So airports or manufacturing companies or military bases that have been using these chemicals and just releasing them into the environment.”
So what does it take to remove PFAS from an environment that’s been contaminated?
According to Murphy, the chemicals can be filtered out of a water supply through reverse osmosis or granulated charcoal, but they’ll still exist within those filters.
“You’d have to destroy it using other means like incineration or plasma destruction, some high energy things to destroy it,” Murphy said. “So it’s hard to destroy it in the environment because you’d have to concentrate it and then destroy it that way.”
However, destroying chemicals through high-energy means still raises questions about safety, making PFAS a uniquely complex problem to get rid of.
“Even though some of these destruction techniques show that it can be destroyed, it might create more harmful products as well,” Murphy said.
GET THE MORNING HEADLINES DELIVERED TO YOUR INBOX
Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.