Opinion | We must determine if Michigan PFAS health risks actually exist

Brian Steglitz is the manager of water treatment services for the city of Ann Arbor and chairs the Communication Council of the Michigan section of American Water Works Association.

When our grandparents first started turning on the tap and marveling at the instant flow of clean drinking water on demand inside their homes, the process for treating and delivering it was less advanced than it is today. It is only in recent history that we have been able to monitor and control for an abundance of water quality parameters, although we have been treating water for more than 100 years.  

The Safe Drinking Water Act was first passed only a little more than 40 years ago. Most of our current drinking water regulations came in the 20 years following its passage.   

Today, drinking water professionals have taken advantage of scientific advances in testing and are more able to identify, analyze and remove potentially harmful substances that were previously not detectable, such as from pharmaceutical or personal care products. Such products may include hormones such as estrogen or drugs such as ibuprofen, which can be detected at the parts per billion (ppb) level, and in some cases, at the parts per trillion (ppt) level. One ppb is equivalent to one drop of water in an Olympic-size swimming pool, and one ppt is equivalent to one blade of grass from 1,000 football fields.  

Newer substances, such as PFAS or polyfluoroalkyl, are now being discovered in drinking water at these extremely low levels, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are producing studies on their potential risks.  

According to the EPA, sources of PFAS are typically localized and associated with a specific facility, such as a chemical manufacturer or landfill.  

Like our testing technology, treatment capabilities have also improved. Today’s water treatment facilities use state-of-the-art equipment operated by highly trained men and women schooled in the science of water quality and treatment.  Water industry professionals take great pride in their ability to provide one of nature’s most essential commodities to their local communities, with public health and convenience as key priorities.

While we work diligently to keep harmful substances out of drinking water, we must also determine whether health risks actually exist. Relying on federal and state standards, we are constantly responding to new challenges that could impact our water quality.

Earlier this year, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality adopted the EPA health advisory level for two PFAS chemicals. It is a maximum level of 0.07 parts per billion (ppb) as the combined amount of perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) that, if exceeded, may cause health impacts.  

The level is less than one drop in 10 Olympic-sized swimming pools. While it is considered safe to bathe or swim in water containing PFAS, some studies indicate that ingesting the chemicals can affect growth, learning and behavior of young children, lower a woman’s chance of getting pregnant, increase cholesterol levels and increase the risk of certain types of cancer, among other human health effects.

In 2017 the state of Michigan formed a Michigan PFAS Action Response Team (MPART) to investigate and coordinate a multi-agency response plan to address Michigan resident exposure to PFAS chemicals. Exposure to low levels of chemicals can come from many sources, and some of the most common and highest doses are typically not from drinking water.  

PFAS chemicals are in many products we use daily, such as non-stick coating on pots and pans, dental floss, carpet cleaners, and sandwich wrappers to name a few. We applaud MPART’s work to study exposure routes and develop solutions to protect public health. The Michigan Section of the American Water Works Association is pleased to be a partner with MPART and State officials, to develop science-based solutions to address emerging contaminants that may impact public health and the environment.

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David Richards
Thu, 08/09/2018 - 10:56am

I don't think the heading accurately describes the column when it uses the word "if . . . health risks actually exist". When I saw the headline, I thought the column was going to dispute that there are health affects of PFAS. But from the column: ". . . studies indicate that ingesting the chemicals can affect growth, learning and behavior of young children, lower a woman’s chance of getting pregnant, increase cholesterol levels and increase the risk of certain types of cancer, among other human health effects." No studies concluding there is no risk from PFAS are mentioned. A more accurate heading would be "We are studying the potential health risks of PFAS", which would not imply the question of whether there are any, but still leaving open any possible conclusion.

Janis Bobrin
Fri, 08/10/2018 - 9:16am

David makes a critical point. Right now, there is no consensus regarding safe levels of PFAS in drinking water. A recent Harvard study suggests that a safe level may be as low as 1 ppt. Analogies like “drops in an Olympic swimming pool” are meaningless in light of such uncertainty. Government credibility in Michigan is at an all-time low when it comes to protecting the public health from contaminated drinking water. The author of the commentary includes a fairly generic statement that we must determine if health risks actually exist when confronted with new challenges that could affect drinking water supplies. (I would add that we should always, always err on the side of caution.) The title, however, casts doubt on whether PFAS ingestion is actually a health risk. I urge the editors to revise it.

Mon, 08/13/2018 - 5:58pm

You seem more interested in promoting public ignorance than in helping to inform the public. In the case of PFAS, you feed the fear by belittling this article because it is trying to inform rather than support your view of banning risk.
A former employer, each year had meetings explaining the chemicals we worked with, their hazards, how to handle them, and why. They made two points common for each chemical, dose and means of risk. These two points became questions to ask about each chemical, whether it is at home, at work, in the NEWS, and even when talking to your doctor.
Dose is about how much and how often, something you seem to disregard once you hear a chemical is detectable. You may not use medications, but for those of us who do the doctor will emphasize dose [how much and how often] because that is to ensure the body gets the most benefit and risks the least harm. This true whether you take ibuprofen or drink beer, it is how much and how often you ingest that matters, eating or drinking or breathing.
The means of harm is about how it harms, how does it harm an organ or other part of the body, do you have to ingest it or is the less common absorption through the skin possible. Using beer as an example, for many drinking a six pack or more of beer cause great harm, while you can bath in the beer and won’t feel ill effects. The beer being present even doesn’t make it harmful, so before banning risk simply because it is present, stop and ask how does it harm the body and what dose is harmful.
In the case of PFAS, I wonder if that is a group of chemicals [PFAS] with only some in that group being harmful, do you know? Is the testing for the group PFAS or just the harmful ones? Is the media reporting results for the group or only the harmful ones? Is 1 ppt for the group of select ones?
I don't discount that there are risks associate with PFAS, but it is more important we ask the right questions to be able to properly understand and manage the risks, for more harm may be create from the fear of the chemicals than is actually presented by the chemicals.
Which is more important managing risk or banning all risk? Consider that nearly a hundred years ago we started using a highly toxic chemical to make our drinking water safe, how many would have died and suffered if that chemical had been banned because of the risk? We still use it safely today and even in our homes.

Bill Krasean
Thu, 08/09/2018 - 4:07pm

Thank you once again for scientific and rational reporting. Football fields and Olympic swimming pools are a great help in understanding the context of this issue. I do wonder, however, if should stop flossing!

Agnosticrat 2.0
Thu, 08/09/2018 - 8:03pm

Very interesting.
Let’s not over react has been said before.

Erwin Haas
Mon, 08/13/2018 - 4:44pm

News flash. Toxicologists, pubbahs and public health “experts” laid end to end point in different directions.
I’ve reviewed to some extent the C8 literature, the backbone of chemicals like PFOS, PFAS, Teflon and the itchy fire retardant saturated uniforms that we on flight status in the armed forces wore in and around aircraft.

There was an Australian study that concluded that there is no toxicity.

The only other extensive study was around a Dupont plant in northern W. Virginia which was sued around 2006 for contaminating the water supply and so funded a poorly done epidemiological study with 70 million US dollars. The area is in authentic Appalachia; I have seen an adult with lethal hookworm infection from nearby. The healthy ones leave for Texas and the residua are sickly, so the population is made out of bent timber that is difficult to compare to normal populations. The 3 authors offered anyone 400 dollars to submit to a health evaluation and about 60k did. The questionnaire asked about diagnoses, loading the dice in favor of problems and never delving into the possibility that C8 might improve health.
They produced a series of about 20 papers, most showing that no effect on various aspects of health. Others showed some weak to moderately strong association with diverse health problems like ulcerative colitis, cancer of only loosely associated organs like testis, kidney, prostate, Hodgkins. Others intimated problems with the thyroids of children but not of adults, and so on….
All of the articles concluded with expressions of uncertainty about the statistical power of the findings. “The numbers are small.” “These results could have arisen by chance.” kind of waffling. Nowhere did I find comparison to the health issues of similar folks, you know, that kind that the writers that I see published in Mlive or in Bridgmi would refer to sneeringly as “hillbillies.”
The lawyers got ⅓ of about 500 million that was levied against Dupont.

In my campaign for Michigan’s 26th Senate district I call for more careful study before altering the criteria of 70 PPT and fully endorse this author's level headed analysis before caving in to yet another hysterical scream from our agonal news media.

Fri, 06/14/2019 - 11:34am

Start by asking in home healthcare employees. 8 years ago home health employees noticed a band of cancer patients in the Oscoda area but didn’t know what caused it. Nurses uncovered the problem because they were helping patients in there home and saw neighbor after neighbor getting cancer. It is now known that PFAS have contaminated the water in that area. The data is there ! If nurses found it the government surely can.

Tracey Easthope, MPH
Mon, 08/13/2018 - 4:51pm

I agree with some other commenters that the title of this article is misleading. I would urge the publishers to change it. PFAS chemicals are a large and complex set of chemicals, but they are, for the most part, highly persistent and mobile in the environment. That means that they will accumulate in the environment, in humans and in wildlife, likely increasing exposures. That makes the analogy with swimming pools less helpful, unless you add that we are all filters and those drops can add up, and unless you also add that some chemicals - for instance hormones in our bodies - can act at very low levels. The question to ask is at what level a chemical is biologically active and whether it can cause harm at that level.

There is growing evidence of harm related to some PFAS chemicals, even at low levels, but with more than 3,000 chemicals as part of this group, some uncertainty will remain. That doesn't mean we shouldn't take action - we know enough to warn people and do everything in our power to address this problem - and to require the phase-out of all uses over time. See this fact sheet for more details: https://www.cleanproduction.org/images/ee_images/uploads/resources/PFAS_...