In 1962, with the release of her seminal work, Silent Spring, Rachel Carson sounded a warning to the American public about the perils of persistent pesticide chemicals like DDT to silence the very ecosystems they attempt to tame. Carson’s story underscored the interconnectedness of all living things and systems and the need to understand the full life cycle of biocides and other chemicals in order to truly protect human health and the environment.
Despite Carson’s work and subsequent congressional toxic chemical legislation, every year, chemical manufacturers release some 10,000 untested chemicals into the environment in the United States. How can this be?
Several weeks ago, I met a professor of environmental toxicology and spoke with him at length about Michigan’s latest emergency drinking water crisis involving a different chemical of concern: per- and polyflouroalkyl substances (PFAS). PFAS are an emerging contaminant of concern because of their widespread use and persistence in the environment, having been commonly used in firefighting foam, water resistant fabrics, nonstick surfaces, stain guards and other commercial and industrial applications. According to recent reporting, there are an estimated 11,000 sites with PFAS contamination affecting a potential 1.5 million citizens in Michigan.
This professor boiled down the problem right back to Rachel Carson’s work, explaining that DDT was in the chlorine family. Once the public and policymakers raised the alarm bells about this chemical family in the 1960s, the chemists simply moved over to the next element – fluorine – and started developing a host of water repellent compounds for commercial and residential use without understanding the public health and environmental impacts once again.
Michiganders now are demanding answers again from their state government that has failed to warn and protect its citizens. Now that the public is clamoring for action, state and federal agencies are finding PFAS in many places. The public water supply of the City of Parchment was found to be contaminated at unacceptable levels, and customers were warned not to use it temporarily. Private well owners near a Wolverine Worldwide shoe manufacturing facility in Kent County have had to seek alternate water supplies. PFAS have also shown up in some school drinking water supplies and in surface waters near Wurtsmith Air Force base.
As early as 2012, DEQ scientists warned administrators about PFAS and their persistence in the environment, and yet, the department failed to take any action putting people and the environment first.
Sadly, this is not Michigan’s first chemical rodeo show. Yet, our state leaders and agencies continue to follow the same playbook: identify the toxic chemical, tell people not to drink the water, scrape up some funding to clean up some contamination sites, and then finally fund the science to determine what a “safe” level is. The State of Michigan needs to do all these things for PFAS, but we need to do a lot, lot more.
First, the PFAS fiasco is a failure of state government to heed the constitutional mandate to protect public health — the executive and legislative branches both. As in the case of Flint’s lead poisoning, experts warned state officials of a threat, and the officials dismissed it. Moreover, over 20 years ago in 1995, the legislature exposed the public to persistent PFAS threats by weakening liability and increasing the allowable cancer risk.
Second, the PFAS fiasco is a canary in the policy coal mine. It’s a warning and a reminder that our economy and environment are engulfed in a bath of chemicals, many of whose risks are unknown. The public trust doctrine forbids the impairment of water-related uses, but as long as our chemical policy is founded in ignorance, we are breaching the doctrine hundreds of times over. It’s time to right the wrong and protect the public trust — and health.
 See 84,000 Chemicals on the Market, Only 1% Have Been Tested for Safety, Ecowatch, July 5, 2015 https://www.ecowatch.com/84-000-chemicals-on-the-market-only-1-have-been-tested-for-safety-1882062458.html; Mark Scialla, “It could take centuries for EPA to test all the unregulated chemicals under a new landmark bill,” PBS hour, June 22, 2016 https://www.pbs.org/newshour/science/it-could-take-centuries-for-epa-to-test-all-the-unregulated-chemicals-under-a-new-landmark-bill
 See Keith Matheny, “DEQ: Harmful PFAs might contaminate more than 11,000 sites statewide,” Detroit Free Press, July 30, 2018, https://www.freep.com/story/news/local/michigan/2018/07/30/deq-pfas-chemical-contamination-pollution-michigan/851152002/; Garret Ellison, “PFAS found in drinking water for 1.5M in Michigan,” MLive, August 23, 2018, https://www.mlive.com/news/index.ssf/2018/08/pfas_michigan_public_water.html.