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State officials warn people to avoid touching PFAS foam

PFAS foam on the Huron River.
Lester Graham
Michigan Radio
PFAS foam along the Huron River.

State officials are warning Michiganders to completely avoid touching PFAS foam. Previously, they emphasized not ingesting it.

PFAS (poly and perfluoroalkyl substances) are a class of chemicals used in firefighting foam, water-proofing substances, and more. The chemicals have been found in 119 municipal water systems.

Update: Wednesday, May 1, 2019, at 6:30 p.m.

State officials say PFAS do not readily move through the skin. But new science from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests PFAS could be toxic at lower levels than previously thought.

Deb MacKenzie-Taylor of the MDHHS says that because of this new information, the agency is "simplifying" its message.

"It's not based on any changes in information about PFAS moving through the skin," she says. "It is that there's some new toxicity information; how much could be harmful. And, we're using that information to be public health protective."

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One or two instances of skin contact aren't enough to cause an issue, but frequent, long-term exposure could be a problem, says MacKenzie-Taylor.

"The way we've evaluated is, three hours a day, five days a week for three months of the year," she says. "So anybody who would live on the lake and have their kids play on the lake every day, or many days of the week. That's where we would be concerned."

She says telling people not to touch the PFAS foam at all also reduces the chances of it being accidentally ingested.

"So, our biggest concern is still swallowing the foam," says MacKenzie-Taylor. "So either kids playing with the foam and getting it in their mouths, or getting it on their hands and then eating it afterwards."

If you do come in contact with the foam, she says you should wash it off immediately.

In an e-mail statement, MDHHS spokesman Bob Wheaton said, "our message regarding PFAS foam is not a new one. We have previously spread the message that people shouldn’t ingest or touch PFAS. It’s just that we are trying to simplify the message."

Original post: Tuesday, April 30, 2019, at 5:11 p.m.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services has previously warned people to not ingest PFAS foam. But now, MLive reports that officials have found that skin contact alone has more potential health effects than previously thought.

Read more: PFAS: Explained

The foam is formed by the churning waters in PFAS-contaminated lakes and rivers. It has been found in Alpena, Oscoda, Rockford, Cascade Township and Grayling, as well as along the Huron River.

MDHHS has yet to formally announce the new advisory. However, state toxicologists say it is being changed to simplify the message from "do not consume the foam" to "avoid the foam."

The CDC states that PFAS chemicals might cause several kinds of health problems, including affecting child development, affecting the immune system, and increasing the risk of certain cancers.

Kaye is an alumnus of Michigan Tech's environmental engineering program. She got her start making maps for the Traverse City-Based water news organization Circle of Blue, and, since then, she's been pretty devoted to science communication and data visualization.
Emma is a communications specialist with the digital team at Michigan Radio. She works across all departments at Michigan Radio, with a hand in everything from digital marketing and fundraising to graphic design and website maintenance. She also produces the station's daily newsletter, The Michigan Radio Beat.
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