CADILLAC — If someone asked you about perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, you likely would say, "what?" But if that same person asked you about PFAS, you likely would have a different response.
At the very least, most people probably understand there is a real concern with PFAS contaminating the ground in several locations across the state. Those more in tune with the environment likely are very concerned with PFAS contaminating the groundwater and more importantly drinking water.
With that in mind, what would happen if there was a PFAS site locally? Are there protocols in place? The Cadillac News looked to local officials for answers to them.
First, where PFAS originated is important to understand.
PFAS were long used in firefighting, waterproofing, carpeting and other products. The chemicals may have been used at thousands of Michigan fire stations, landfills, industrial sites, military bases, airports and other locations. They have been identified at multiple sites throughout the state, including near where footwear company Wolverine World Wide dumped waste decades ago north of Grand Rapids.
District Health Department No. 10 Environmental Health Director Tom Reichard said there is a plan in place put in place by the state which includes protocols also developed by the state. He said when it comes to PFAS it is not a single agency that would take over to address an issue but multiple. It would be a team approach, according to Reichard.
"The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy would take care of the environmental investigation and as far as the health standards and testing that would be the Department of Health and Human Services," he said. "Then, of course, there is the local connection with the local health department or city/township that the contamination is in."
So far the only PFAS site close to the Cadillac area has been found in the Village of Baldwin in Lake County at an old laundromat location that used to waterproof clothing, Reichard said. The laundromat site, which doesn't exist anymore, is now a parking lot, he said.
"We have not found any contamination sites in Cadillac but that may change," he said.
Michigan isn't the only state dealing with PFAS issues but it is apparently one of the worst, according to a report released in the spring by the Environmental Working Group. The nonprofit, non-partisan organization works to empower people to live healthier lives in a healthier environment.
As of March 2019, at least 610 locations in 43 states are known to be contaminated, including drinking water systems serving an estimated 19 million people, according to EWG. The latest update by EWG and the Social Science Environmental Health Research Institute, at Northeastern University, documented publicly known pollution from PFAS chemicals nationwide, including public water systems, military bases, military and civilian airports, industrial plants, dumps and firefighter training sites.
The last time the information was updated, in July 2018, there were 172 contaminated sites in 40 states. This update draws from new data sources, so it is not directly comparable with the previous edition. But it does show the issue is spreading.
Michigan has 192 sites, reflecting a testing program more comprehensive than anywhere else, according to EWG. California has 47 known contamination sites and New Jersey has 43.
In a recent article by Bridge Magazine, a different way for testing for PFAS was discussed. As the household toxins are found in more sites, Michigan regulators are trying to better understand how much fish can ingest before they become harmful to eat. So Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy technicians have been trolling the waters for fish to freeze, fillet, freeze again and ground into a powder to be tested at state labs.
The state has collected PFAS data on 21 types of fish, with bluegill, largemouth bass and rock bass tested most frequently, EGLE data show.
Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel recently joined 20 Attorneys General in sending a letter urging Congress to pass legislation that aids states in addressing the public health threat presented by PFAS.
The letter sent to Congressional leaders called for action to help states address and prevent the growing dangers of these super-resilient, man-made chemicals that are contaminating drinking water and groundwater nationwide. The letter also urged Congress to provide financial assistance to state and local governments to offset the high cost of cleaning up drinking water supplies.
The group’s letter came just one month after Nessel and Michigan’s Departments of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, and Health and Human Services, each filed comments urging the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to strengthen its interim PFAS standards to better protect the health, safety and welfare of the state’s residents, all Americans and the environment.
Michigan is one of only a few states that has issued enforceable standards for the two chemicals addressed in the EPA’s recommendations: perfluorooctanoic acid and perflurorooctanesulfonic acid. The state has water quality standards, cleanup criteria for groundwater used as drinking water, and cleanup criteria for the groundwater-surface water interface to protect the health, safety and welfare of residents and the environment.
While the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives have advanced legislation that addresses issues related to PFAS contamination, the Attorneys General urge Congress to deal with “the most urgent legislative needs‘ of states as they work on a final agreement on this legislation. These urgent needs, based on states’ firsthand experience include:
Designating certain PFAS chemicals as “hazardous substances‘ under the federal Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, otherwise known as “Superfund.‘ This designation is key to cleaning up some of the most dangerous PFAS-contaminated sites in the country, including U.S. Department of Defense sites and so-called “orphan‘ sites, where the responsible parties have not been identified or located, or have simply failed to act.
Adding the entire class of PFAS chemicals to the EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory, which requires certain industrial facilities to report on the amount of specific toxic chemicals released into the environment annually. This would provide critical information about new potential sources of these chemicals, as well as the areas of potential contamination.
Providing funding for remediation of PFAS-contaminated drinking water supplies – particularly those in disadvantaged communities where residents’ water bills rise as a result of their municipality struggling to afford the high costs associated with cleaning up PFAS.
Prohibiting the use and storage of firefighting foam containing PFAS at military bases and other federal facilities as soon as possible and in the meantime, providing immediate protective measures, especially when firefighting foam is used.
Finally, providing medical screening of PFAS exposure for appropriate personnel and members of the public, including but not limited to firefighters.