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In recent months, the State of Michigan has found several places where drinking water and fish are contaminated by a class of chemicals called PFAS, or poly and perfluoroalkyl substances.PFAS is a family of chemicals that can be found in all sorts of products. But what are the lingering effects of PFAS on our health and the environment?

PFAS: What is this stuff?

An early Teflon television advertisement. Teflon was among some of the first PFAS chemicals.
Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Fish have tested with very high levels of PFAS chemicals near the closed Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Oscoda Township.

In recent months, the State of Michigan has found several places where drinking water and fish are contaminated by a class of chemicals called PFAS. This pollution is coming from a variety of sources.

What are these chemicals? Where did they come from? Why are we using them?

At the 1964 World Fair, DuPont had a song and dance presentation that included these lyrics:

“There’s a wonderful world of chemistry anywhere you wander….”

It depicts some of the optimism people had at the time. For much of the last century, all kinds of new useful household and industrial products were being discovered at a dizzying pace. It seemed so great.

The DuPont company’s advertising slogan was: “Better things for better living through chemistry.”

An accidental discovery in 1938 of a new class of chemicals eventually resulted in DuPont’s Teflon.

This was among the first of the PFAS chemicals.

“Part of the reason these chemicals are so popular and industrially useful is that they contain incredibly strong bonds between carbon and fluorine and they are both attracted to and repelled by water and very useful for all sorts of uses,” explained Genna Reed. She is a Lead Science and Policy Analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Companies such as DuPont and 3M found that carbon-flourine bond in PFAS [poly and perfluoroalkyl substances] chemicals could be used in things such as food packaging so hamburgers didn’t leave grease stains on the wrapper. They could be used to make stain resistant carpet and furniture. They could be used to make everything from floor waxes to dental floss to raingear.

It’s estimated that there are more than 4,700 different types of these chemicals.

They’re everywhere. You almost certainly have products with PFAS chemicals in your home. Nearly everyone on earth has some of these chemicals in their bodies.

“They’re known as forever chemicals because the bonds are incredibly strong and very hard to break down. So, they’re very long lasting and hard to get rid of. So, they persist in our bodies, but also in the environment,” Reed said. 

According to the U.S. government, some of these PFAS chemicals might affect growth, learning, and behavior of infants and older children. They might lower a woman’s chance of getting pregnant. They’re believed to interfere with the body’s natural hormones. They might increase cholesterol levels, affect the immune system, and increase the risk of cancer.

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
James Clift is Policy Director for the Michigan Environmental Council.

James Clift is with the Michigan Environmental Council. He says for a long time the attitude was: they'll be fine. Just don’t eat the stuff.

“If it wasn’t designed to be eaten or ingested, then oh, we don’t have to worry about it. You know, we’ll look at where it’s going to be later. We’ll look at the other ways it could get into our body later,” he explained.

Clift adds that some of the health risks have been known by the manufacturers for a while, but it wasn’t in their interests to dig too deeply.

“The manufacturers realized it back in the ‘70s, ‘80s because they started to see potential impact to their workers. So they had the ‘heads up’ early. They realized there were some problems here.”

DuPont and 3M stopped manufacturing some PFAS chemicals in the U.S. Some have been replaced with alternative versions that are not supposed to last as long because of their molecular structure. It’s not clear that those new chemicals are any safer.

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
The now closed Wurtsmith Air Force Base used a firefighting foam containing a PFAS chemical in training exercises.

Michigan is finding PFAS water contamination in an increasing number of places: airports that used firefighting foam containing PFAS in training exercises, some paper mills used PFAS chemicals. It’s been found near an old shoe factory that used waterproofing chemicals.

David Savitz is Professor of Epidemiology in the Brown University School of Public Health. He’s investigated PFAS contamination near a DuPont facility in West Virginia.

Dr. Savitz is now science advisor for a Michigan task force looking into how widespread PFAS contamination is in the state.

“And as we keep looking, we keep finding it. We’re getting a handle on it. And, I think that’s worrisome when we keep discovering these problems, but ultimately that’s the way to solve the problem, to have the full scope of what you’re dealing with,” Savitz said.

Chances are other states are contaminated at a level far greater than the public knows. While Michigan seems to be a PFAS hotspot at the moment, that’s likely because the State of Michigan is actually looking for it rather than ignoring it.

Lester Graham reports for The Environment Report. He has reported on public policy, politics, and issues regarding race and gender inequity. He was previously with The Environment Report at Michigan Public from 1998-2010.