Opinion | I study PFAS in Michigan. Trust me, they are everywhere

Gillian Zaharias Miller is senior staff scientist at the Ecology Center in Ann Arbor.

“PFAS” is a clunky acronym for a slick set of chemicals. They’re brilliant at repelling water and oil on cookware and furniture, yet some forms spread easily through groundwater. They cling to proteins in our blood yet slip through traditional water filters. The PFAS family tree splits into a dizzying array of individual chemical compounds. We need to largely rid our world of them.

Reports of high levels of PFAS (per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances) in Michigan’s waterways came as little surprise to those of us at the Ecology Center in Ann Arbor. We’ve long advocated for stronger environmental protections when it comes to the tens of thousands of synthetic chemicals currently used by industry. Until our society commits to regulating harmful substances as chemical classes, rather than one by one, this story of chemical bad guys and disillusioned communities will continue to repeat.

So far, the news in Michigan has focused on PFAS in firefighting foam and in industrial waste. But PFAS are also abundant in products we bring into our homes. For example, the Ecology Center recently helped test popular carpet and children’s car seat brands and found PFAS treatments were common.

PFAS are common because they’re useful: think waterproof jackets, nonstick pans, takeout packaging, and a slew of other products. But at what cost? These items are made somewhere. The factory waste is dumped somewhere. Waste and water treatment plants are ill-equipped to filter out many PFAS chemicals.

And the products themselves may expose us. The intergovernmental Commission for Environmental Cooperation tested waterproof baby bibs, mats, and blankets. They agitated these items in artificial saliva to mimic the way a young child might mouth them. Sure enough, PFAS migrated into the simulated spit. The chemicals also migrated into simulated sweat and into laundry wash water.

We can’t have perfectly nonstick, waterproof, stain-proof products and not inadvertently consume PFAS. Virtually all of us have these chemicals in our bodies; no one knows exactly how many varieties.

We know the historically used “long-chain” PFAS are toxic at very low doses. We know they accumulate in our organs. We know that molecules released decades ago by the tannery in Rockford and by military bases like Wurtsmith have held up over time, maintaining their super-strong carbon-fluorine bonds, hitching rides with groundwater, spreading far from their origins.They will last essentially forever.

A lot of effort went into phasing out long-chain PFAS and replacing them with “short-chain” varieties. But now that they are everywhere, we realize the supposedly safer replacements aren’t so benign. They don’t break down. The same tests that revealed cancer and immune suppression in rats exposed to long-chain PFAS reveal similar effects from the short-chain replacements. They’re even harder to filter out of water. And the Minnesota Department of Health reported watering plants with tap water in the vicinity of 3M’s historic dumping caused garden produce to take up short-chain PFAS in particular.

It’s like finding a new home for your pet cat because you discover you’re allergic and hastily adopting a dog instead ‒ without realizing you’re allergic to dogs, too.  

This approach to hazardous chemicals will never achieve what most of us want: clean and safe water, air, and food. Restricting PFAS as a class will stop the cycle of this vexing chemical family.

Michigan product manufacturers should take the lead. Each should implement a company chemicals policy compelling them to identify alternatives and assess them for health hazards. Several tools exist to help businesses do just that.

Our state lawmakers can help get PFAS out of products as well. They can, for example, prohibit PFAS in firefighting foam and ban the chemicals from state purchasing.

For most uses, the convenience of PFAS is dwarfed by the risks. The next crisis will be thwarted only when we turn off the pollution at its source.

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Tue, 02/05/2019 - 10:09am

One has to ask at what level can we tolerate the supposedly harmful chemicals. As detection methods improve does it just mean that what was previously undetectable is now deadly, or does it only mean that something is there but is not an issue. For those of us old enough to vividly remember Sputnik and the Apollo program, we grew up playing with mercury on our desks in science class, chewing on lead painted window sills, breathing fumes from leaded gasoline, and playing with asbestos. Yes, I was able to buy a roll of asbestos, about 1/8" thick, to put on the bench I used for my chemistry set, just like they had in school. For the most part, we all grew up with sound minds and bodies. Some of us died from cancer, but by the time you have reached 60, you fully understand that we all are going to die, and that is probably a better alternative than sitting in the hallway of a senior home drooling all over ourselves and not understanding anything that is going on.

Tue, 02/05/2019 - 11:08am

Our life expectancies have been going up for the last 100 + years and even faster in the last 50! All while these great threats have unleashed. Not that they should continue to be dumped in the river. This is not about efficacy and measurable risk, it is really about control and who gets it.

Wed, 02/06/2019 - 10:40am

Scientists studied all of those things, found that lead negatively affects IQ and that asbestos causes mesothelioma - and implemented interventions. One in three people will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime - that's a big jump in the last 50 years and includes two children I know as well as a good friend of mine who recently lost her life from breast cancer, leaving behind her one year old daughter. There are so many more stories like this. PFAS has been shown to effect breast bud development and may play a role in breast cancer as well as the ability to successfully breastfeed as an adult. These are not chemicals that I wanted or want my daughter to be exposed to when she was developing in my body - but they are everything and so there wasn't really a choice. Please do not be cavalier about this issue - we would all like the privilege of growing old with the best quality of life possible.

Erwin Haas
Thu, 02/07/2019 - 4:27pm

This "Center" either Bridge or Environmental, take you pick) is another enviro/green/leftist funded group; the article is published because they don't want to lose their doggy dish.
. We need to be at least more than suspicious that these compounds actually , cause harm. There was an Australian study that concluded that they were benign. The only other study was at the Washington, W.V. plant done over 10 years about 12 years ago. I reviewed many of their findings during my Michigan Senate campaign (26TH) and find 1) no recognition that the population was in Appalachia where the average man lives 8 years and woman 4 years less than the American average. The population is a sickly one and many of the results suspect because it cannot, and was not compared to a similar one as far as is published. 2) all of the findings are couched in "consistent with", "possibly" "seems" and the like.

I'd like to be sure of human harm before spending public money on what is probably a futile quest. There are no new additions to the C8 in our environment, the stuff is disappearing from the blood of people who had been exposed (half life maybe 3 years ), so that this is a self correcting problem at worst.
Keep the yokels scared and the money never stops. Mencken, or someone.

Charlie Weaver
Thu, 02/07/2019 - 7:36pm

Mr. Haas

Why don't you drink some and see what happens. If you'd like I'll brink you a gallon of PFAStainted water.

Susan Wheadon
Mon, 02/11/2019 - 9:28am

Lucky for you the "enviro/green/leftist" folk care about you and your family too. Imagine what the world would be like if no one did care.

Charlie Weaver
Thu, 02/07/2019 - 7:33pm

Excellent article explaining PFAS in layperson's terms.