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Research finds more PFAS coming out of wastewater treatment plants than going in

Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (now Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy)
State environmental agency worker testing water

New research from Western Michigan University indicates that wastewater treatment plants could have a negative effect on PFAS pollution.

PFAS (perfluorinated alkylated substances) are used by many industries. They've been linked to some cancers and developmental disorders. There are thousands of PFAS, most undetectable by current methods.

Matt Reeves is an Associate Professor of Hydrogeology at WMU. He and colleagues Ross Helmer and Daniel Cassidy recently detected more PFAS in the discharged water from wastewater treatment plants, than the water going into the plant.

He said that's likely because undetectable PFAS entering the plant are likely subjected to aeration and oxygenation inside the plant.

"They can cause some of these compounds that we can't detect in the influent water. It can transform and change the molecular structure into some of the compounds that we can see," he said.

Moreover, the PFAS in the water coming out of the plant are often forms which can persist for decades or longer in the environment without breaking down, he said.

Reeves said the phenomenon needs further study, and the health effects of different PFAS also need further study.

Michigan currently has some of the strictest drinking water and groundwater standards in the nation. The state's clean-up criteria are 8 parts per trillion for PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) and 16 parts per trillion for PFOS (perflurooctane sulfonic acid).

The state Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy has dozens of investigations into PFAS contamination across the state.

Tracy Samilton covers energy and transportation, including the auto industry and the business response to climate change for Michigan Public. She began her career at Michigan Public as an intern, where she was promptly “bitten by the radio bug,” and never recovered.
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