For nearly four decades now, studies have been documenting exposure to PFAS, but it was not until the early 2000s until it was widely discovered to be contaminating drinking water. States the country has taken action against this issue, with Michigan’s government already ahead of many others in addressing the issue. 

There are roughly 60 confirmed PFAS Michigan sites, but the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy suspects over 10,000 potential sites where PFAS was present. 

PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, refers to the over 3,000 manufactured chemicals that were a large part of production starting in the 1940s and 1950s. With the unique properties of PFAS, manufacturers could create waterproof, stain resistant, and non-stick products. 

The presence of PFAS is ubiquitous, as we use them in carpeting, upholstery, furniture, waterproof clothing, cosmetics, and much more. Outside of production, we used PFAS in a firefighting foam called AFFF, a substance for branches of the armed forces and fire departments. 

The presence of PFAS is of great concern. The most common way that a person can come into contact with PFAS is through drinking water. Certain species of fish may also face exposure to PFAS, exposing people through consumption of those fish. 

PFAS can also be found in food packaged in PFAS-containing materials, processed with equipment that used PFAS, or grown in PFAS-contaminated soil or water.

Researchers have only limited knowledge of these chemicals, but some studies show that they may cause health implications. Preliminary research suggests that PFAS could increase thyroid disease, decrease fertility in women, cause development issues in infants and older children, and increase blood pressure and cholesterol levels. They also link PFAS to increased risks of kidney and testicular cancer.

The Environmental Protection Agency recommends a lifetime advisory limit set at 70 parts per trillion for PFOA and PFOS, two of the best studied PFAS compounds. However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have found that some health issues began at levels lower than the EPA’s recommended 70 ppt. 

Under the Safe Drinking Water Act, the EPA has the authority to set enforceable Maximum Containment Levels for specific chemicals and monitoring of public water supplies. Unfortunately, there are no current MCLs established for PFAS chemicals, so it does not require drinking water system operators to adhere to any recommendations. 

PFAS contamination is not just in Michigan, but we need to stay at the forefront of taking action to protect human health.