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.