PFAS sites in Michigan
Here’s a look at 14 communities where Michigan environmental regulators have found contaminations of PFAS, a once commonly used industrial chemical. Click on the dots for a brief summary of each site.
Source: Michigan Department of Environmental Quality
Amid questions about how — or whether — Michigan will fund cleanups at thousands of polluted sites, state regulators are sizing up threats to drinking water supplies from group of chemicals collectively known as PFAS.
Officially called perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, the industrial chemicals were once used to manufacture everything from clothing to firefighting foam. Now, regulators believe they threaten public health.
The state Department of Environmental Quality has flagged PFAS contamination in 14 communities. In some cases, the chemicals have seeped into drinking water. In November, Gov. Rick Snyder formed a “Michigan PFAS Action Response Team,” and lawmakers last month allocated more than $23 million for a challenge that may only grow tougher as officials learn more.
“They’ve barely wrapped their head around the extent of PFAS contamination,” said Charlotte Jameson, a policy expert with the Michigan Environmental Council, a Lansing-based advocacy group.
The map above highlights all 14 communities and contains a brief summary of what is known about each. The sites range as far north as Marquette County’s decommissioned K.I. Sawyer Air Force Base, all the way down to southeast Michigan.
Most notable, perhaps, is the saga playing out in Plainfield Township and other parts of Kent County. There, groundwater beneath hundreds of houses is being tested — and in some cases registering astronomical PFAS levels — following revelations that toxic chemicals leached from the dumping sites of Rockford-based Wolverine Worldwide, known for its Hush Puppies shoes. Some residents wonder whether the chemicals have anything to do with cancer clusters and other health problems in the area.
Michigan sued Wolverine in federal court last week— an effort to lock the company’s response efforts into place and to ensure it will reimburse taxpayers for cleanup costs.
MORE COVERAGE: Michigan maker of Hush Puppies called on its toxic past
Here’s a brief primer about the substances.
What is PFAS?
PFAS is class of man-made chemicals. Two of the most prevalent types are called PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) and PFOS (perfluorooctane sulfonate). These are “the most extensively produced and studied” chemicals under the PFAS umbrella, according to the EPA. As a group, the chemicals have similar characteristics and levels of toxicity.
PFAS breaks down incredibly slowly, meaning people can become exposed to chemicals manufactured months or years earlier.
“You’ve got something that is incredibly persistent and hard to get rid of,” Heidi Grether, director of the DEQ, recently told a panel of House lawmakers.
How is PFAS used?
The chemicals can reduce friction. That makes them useful for a many products that are waterproofed, non-stick or stain-resistant. PFAS was used in aerospace, construction and electronics projects, tanneries (like the shoe site in Kent County), clothing manufacturers and firefighting foams (which was used at the K.I. Sawyer Air Force Base)
U.S. manufacturers have largely phased out certain types of PFAS, according to the EPA, but such chemicals are still used internationally to make products that may be imported.
How hazardous is PFAS?
Research is still evolving. Exposure — whether through eating or drinking contaminated food or water — may be linked to a variety of health problems, according to the EPA. The agency considers PFOA and PFOS “emerging contaminants,” and “possibly carcinogenic to humans.”
Cancer risks are “suggestive,” based upon testing on animals, the agency says. Some studies of humans have linked the chemicals to low infant birth weights, changes in cholesterol and problems with thyroid hormones and the immune system, but they are not necessarily conclusive.
The chemicals can build up in the body over a lifetime.
How much PFAS is considered dangerous?
The EPA has set a health advisory for PFOA and PFOS at 70 parts per trillion. At some PFAS sites Michigan is tracking, waters in some wells have levels below that threshold, but others have tested at levels exponentially higher.
While the EPA’s health advisory is unenforceable, the DEQ last week named the same threshold Michigan’s official cleanup criteria. That means the agency can take regulatory or legal against polluters who don’t clean up PFAS at concentrations above 70 parts per trillion, and allowed for the state to sue Wolverine Worldwide.
Is this just a Michigan issue?
This is global. In 2016, a study published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology Letters found 66 U.S. public water supplies with at least one sample at or above EPA’s health advisory for PFAS.
Those public water supplies collectively served 6 million people. The U.S. Department of Defense has found PFAS at about 400 of its active and shuttered installations. It has already spent billions of dollars trying to clean them up.