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Widespread use of PFAS means new contamination sites “almost inevitable” says expert

chase and steve moskalik in front of cases of bottled water at Parchment high school
Catherine Shaffer
Michigan Radio

Late last week, Michigan declared a state of emergency in Kalamazoo County. The state told 3,100 residents of Parchment and nearby Cooper Township to stop drinking and cooking with municipal water.

That “do-not-drink” water alert came after testing showed high levels of per-and-polyfluoroalkyl chemicals, known collectively as PFAS.

In an article published Monday, Detroit Free Press reporter Keith Mahaney wrote that the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality suspects that PFAS water contamination may be found in more than 11,300 sites around the state.

Dr. David Savitz is head of the scientific advisory committee to Michigan’s PFAS Action Response (MPART). He’s also a professor of epidemiology in the Brown University School of Public Health. Savitz joined Stateside to explain what's behind a big jump in the number of suspected sites. 

“In Michigan, as in basically any other state in the country, if you systematically go through the water supplies — not just the ones that are near known sources of contamination, but when you go methodically through them all — it’s almost inevitable that you will find some that you hadn’t been aware of before, and that’s what’s happened in Michigan,” Savitz explained.

In March, the MDEQ began testing 1,300 water systems across the state for evidence of PFAS contamination. The $1.7 million survey will test a total of 1,380 community water supplies, as well as 461 schools with their own well water systems.

“We are roughly halfway through the testing program and [Parchment] is the first result over the EPA Health Advisory level of 70 ppt that we have recorded,” MDEQ spokesperson Scott Dean wrote in an email.

Savitz said that scientific evidence about the health effects of PFAS exposure is still somewhat scant. But he says that previous research has linked high levels of the chemicals to high cholesterol levels, disrupted thyroid hormones, ulcerative colitis, as well as kidney and testicular cancer. These impacts, Savitz says, are likely the result of a long period of exposure.     

“The concern is not with an acute exposure, not what you’re drinking today or what you’ve been drinking over the past few weeks or months, but rather this cumulative exposure over a period of many years,” he explained.

Listen above to hear Dr. David Savitz talk about the rapidly growing number of sites with suspected PFAS contamination and what risks communities exposed to the chemicals could face.

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