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Issues & Ale recap: Michigan's growing PFAS crisis

Crissy Zamarron / Michigan Radio

Issues & Ale traveled to the west side of the state on Monday, July 23 for an informative discussion covering the concerns about per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) that many communities there share. On a beautiful summer day on the patio at Perrin Brewing Company, host Lester Graham and a panel of experts shared the science and history behind PFAS contamination in Michigan, as well as some advice for nervous residents.

The panel for the evening included:

  • Garret Ellison - Ellison is an environmental reporter for MLive Media Group. He has specialized in reporting on PFAS and their impact on Michigan residents. He teaches journalism classes at Grand Valley State University and holds his bachelor's degree from Central Michigan University.
  • Rick Rediske - Environmental toxicology and chemistry professor at Grand Valley State University and environmental chemistry senior program manager at the Robert B. Annis Water Resources Institute. His areas of expertise include the fate and transport of chemicals in the environment, sediment toxicity, ecological effects of contaminants, and chemical/biological processing of nutrients in watersheds, in addition to hazardous waste site assessment and remediation.
  • Abigail Hendershott - Hendershott is the district supervisor at the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) in the Grand Rapids District Office. She has contributed to water quality investigations and PFAS education across the state.

First and foremost, our panel agreed that these are complex chemicals, and we still don’t have all the facts about them. What these experts could confirm is that many of us already have these compounds in our bloodstream as a result of water contamination. But what our panelists say is even more important is that these emerging contaminants are also considered “forever chemicals,” meaning they will be difficult to clean from our water, and our bodies.
Although these chemicals were developed decades ago, as Hendershott explains, “It's called an emerging contaminant because we’ve only been studying this in Michigan for the past six years." She adds, “What’s difficult about this is we're talking about something that is a perpetuity type of situation, we’ve got to protect our residents into the future forever if we’ve already got PFAS contamination.”

Rediske explained to guests that “these are not like any contaminant of the past," even those like PBAs or DDT. “These [compounds] behave differently than many others, they bind to the albumen protein in our blood, the same one that carries our antibodies." They don’t let go and are able to then circulate through the entire circulatory system. The human kidney does not excrete these compounds and so they stay inside us much longer [than other animals] and thus we are taking in higher exposure of these contaminants.

PFAS compounds are in “a whole host of chemicals and products that we use in our everyday world, and so the potential for us coming into contact with this is very high,” explained Hendershot, “and we have incidental PFAS ingestion that occurs through our day.” She adds that ingestion, mostly through drinking water, is what the state considers the biggest concern.

The contamination of drinking water can come from a number of sources. When people talk about the PFAS issue, most people think first of the Wolverine World Wide Tannery. However, as Ellison shared, firefighting foam, waterproofing uses, chrome plating, and Teflon products are also just a few of the many sources of PFOAS, PFAS, PFOS, and other variations of the compound, contaminating water in communities across Michigan as well as other states.

So, what’s being done? What can be done? By the state? By residents?

Credit Crissy Zamarron / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Panelists speak with Issues & Ale attendees at Perrin Brewing Co.

As a representative from EGLE and The Michigan PFAS Action Response Team (MPART), Hendershott explained that the MPART group is in the process of getting a maximum contaminant level, or MCL, set for PFAS chemicals. This would provide the first enforceable standard for the use of these compounds in the state, as well as the first MCL to be put in place by a state on its own – not first implemented by the federal government, as typically happens. As it stands, there are still no federal standards for PFOS or PFAS levels or clean up.

Ellison has spent years reporting on PFAS concerns and speaking to folks affected by and those studying what can be done. He offered a number of resources for concerned residents. Check out the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), a toxicology resource from the CDC to find out more information about PFAS. The MLive reporter suggests if someone is in a community that has been notified of potential water contamination of PFAS and have concerns about the water in their home, they might consider looking into the Freshwater Future resource for at-home water testing.

So should we be talking to our doctors about this? Professor Rediske asserted matter-of-factly: “I’ve talked to my doctor.” Rediske specified, “I think if you feel you’ve been exposed more than the average person …  particularly, exposed through drinking water, you need to have a dialog with your physician,” this can help individuals plan to be more careful about things like cholesterol and more vigilant about screening for specific cancers and other known health issues. He says the biggest concern, in his opinion, is fetal and young childhood health. Particularly the risk for immunity damage, should be monitored and pediatricians need to be aware of children’s’ potential exposure if they in one of these possible contaminated water areas, specifically if drinking water has been affected.

Hendershott noted that some training for medical professionals has also been offered from Kent County Health Department regarding PFAS. Though the information has been getting conveyed to the medical community in these areas, it’s not as easy as we might think to pinpoint PFAS-related health issues in individuals at this time.

Listen to the full conversation above.