Speak Up About PFAS, the “Forever Chemicals” in Michigan’s Drinking Water

Michigan residents have an opportunity until Friday, January 31, to speak up and defend our families and public drinking water from a group of chemicals known collectively as PFAS — also called “forever chemicals” because they persist in the environment and are known to be in the water supply of at least 1.9 million Michiganders.

(To comment, email EGLE-PFAS-RuleMaking@Michigan.gov or mail your comment to: Drinking Water and Environmental Health Division / Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy / Attention: Suzann Ruch / PO Box 30817 / Lansing, Michigan 48909-8311)

What are the “Forever Chemicals”?

By Dave Long, Environmental Sustainability Solutions, LLC

PFOA and PFOS have been in the news lately, but what are they? PFOA and PFOS are fluorinated organic chemicals that are part of a larger group of chemicals referred to as perfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs). PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) and PFOS (perfluorooctane sulfonic acid) have been the most extensively produced and studied of these chemicals. They have been used in the manufacturing of carpets, clothing, fabrics for furniture, paper packaging for food and for non-stick surfaces for cookware. These chemicals provide water repellency and resistance to grease and stains to fabric.  Consumers often know them as Scotchgard® and Teflon®. They are also used for firefighting at airports, chemical plants and for industrial fires.

These groups of man-made chemicals called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) have been around since the 1940s, making our lives easier through non-stick surfaces, stain-resistant and water repellent products. Between 2000 and 2002, PFOS was voluntarily phased out of production in the U.S. by its primary manufacturers, 3M and DuPont. In 2006, eight major companies voluntarily agreed to phase out their global production of PFOA and PFOA-related chemicals, although there are a limited number of current uses.

All that convenience comes at a price because PFOA does not break down and can accumulate over time in the environment and in your body. Recently PFOA and PFOS have been called the “Forever Chemicals.” Researchers have compelling evidence that exposure to some PFAS can cause adverse health effects.

In Michigan, PFAS chemicals have been found in many water supplies around Fort Grayling, in the city of Ann Arbor, and around several industrial sites. Currently the State of Michigan is working on setting a standard for drinking water to protect residents of the state. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued health advisory levels of 70 parts per trillion (ppt) for two of these chemicals, PFOS and PFOA (perfluorooctane sulfonic acid and perfluorooctanoic acid, respectively).

Studies show evidence of adverse health effects from exposure to PFAS chemicals. PFAS chemicals persist in the body for a long time and can accumulate. In laboratory animals, researchers found that PFOA and PFOS can cause reproductive, developmental, liver, kidney, and immunological effects.

Consistently elevated cholesterol levels have been found in people with detectable levels of PFOA or PFOS. Lower infant birth weights, immune system effects, cancer (PFOA), and thyroid disruption (PFOS) have also been associated, albeit less frequently, with PFOA or PFOS.

The good news is there are filters designed to remove PFAS chemicals from water, either tap water or from municipal water supplies. Specific ion exchange resins have been developed and tested. Highly selective ion exchange resins for PFAS chemicals remove PFOS or PFOA below the EPA Health Advisory (HA) levels of 70 parts per trillion (ppt).

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