Researcher: Michigan's PFAS threat went unheeded for five years

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News
Robert Delaney

It's taken more than five years for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to understand the enormity of the chemical contamination crisis threatening the state that a DEQ researcher warned about in 2012.

Robert Delaney told a Grand Rapids hearing Tuesday with Sen. Gary Peters that he was “afraid and angry” in 2010 about the class of dangerous chemicals called PFAS. With the knowledge of the threat Michiganians faced, Delaney said he felt "like I was at the edge of an abyss looking into hell.”

But his 2012 report to former DEQ Director Dan Wyant recommending ways to combat the dangerous effects of PFAS went unheeded for five years, a fact that disturbed the scientist.

“Director Wyant always said that he really didn’t know much about the environmental business,” Delaney said. “He knew how to work in government.”

In his 2012 report, the state scientist and researcher wrote that increasing evidence pointed toward the role contaminants play in issues such as autism, schizophrenia and autoimmune diseases. But he acknowledged that because little was known about the thousands of chemicals in use commercially, verifying a cause and effect was difficult.

At the time of Delaney’s report, the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base was the only identified point source of the chemical. But Delaney wrote he expected “there will be many other sites in Michigan that contain high levels,” especially those with fire training facilities, transportation corridors and industrialized areas.

A state response team said in a Tuesday statement the chemicals have been found at high levels at 34 sites throughout Michigan.

“We are essentially running a large toxicity study and using the human population as the guinea pigs,” Delaney said in the report.

Part of a brainstorming effort in 2012, Delaney’s report has been considered an early warning about the emerging PFAS crisis, one that would have allowed Michigan to get ahead of the issue.

Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, led the field summit of federal, state and local health and environmental officials in Grand Rapids, but noted the absence of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which instead submitted written comment.

Peters said he was disappointed by the EPA’s absence, but will continue “pushing” the the Trump administration to develop a federal standard for the chemical.

The toxic class of chemicals is linked to some health effects, including cancer and immune system problems. The chemical was widely used in Teflon, Scotchgard, military bases and firefighting foam.

Officials stressed that Michigan is ahead of the national curve in its response to PFAS.

Michigan's response debated

The state’s PFAS Action Response Team has been working for about a year to test municipal and school water supplies, identify sources of contamination, initiate litigation against polluters and engage the federal government in issuing federal guidelines for PFAS.

The team has tested 1,218 public water systems and schools on private wells as well as surveyed more than 100 waste water treatment plants and nearly 700 fire departments, according to a statement released Tuesday. 

The state will begin testing day care centers next.

Michigan DEQ Director Dan Wyant makes a point during a news conference with Attorney General Bill Schuette about pipeline restrictions on Tuesday, July 14, 2015 in Lansing.

“What you’re seeing is a very rapid response, said Carol Isaacs, director for the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team.

But for some Michiganians, such as Sandy Wynn-Stelt, the response has not been fast enough. A Belmont resident who lives near Wolverine Worldwide, Wynn-Stelt’s water has tested between 27,000 parts per trillion and 78,000 ppt. Her blood serum levels in November 2017 were 5 million parts per trillion, 750 times the national average.

“Once you add all of the zeros on, it becomes kind of meaningless,” Wynn-Stelt said. “It's extraordinarily high, I know that.”

The state has issued a violation to the U.S. Air Force for its inaction at the former Wurtsmith base and has urged the EPA to set a federal standard for PFAS health advisory levels. Barring such a standard from the EPA, Isaacs said the state’s science panel has been researching the possibility of lowering the state standard below the federal health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion.

“I do think we’re going to have some information before the year is out,” she said.

Report feedback lacking

Part of a work group in 2011, Delaney wrote an earlier white paper addressing the toxicity of the chemicals, which resulted in PFAS being added to the list of chemicals for which fish should be tested annually. But he said he did not receive feedback on his 2012 report until this year.

“I heard from one other state employee later that the director had distributed it to some of the other leaders in the DEQ, but that’s all I know,” Delaney said.

From 2012 to 2018, the state scientist said he’s had moments wondering whether he was crazy. But the high PFAS results in Parchment and Cooper Township drinking water this summer served as a confirmation of his findings, he said.

Delaney emphasized that he was speaking on his own and not on behalf of the state or the DEQ.

In his statement at the hearing, Delaney emphasized the importance of understanding PFAS’ health effects, empowering businesses to provide solutions, finding resources to address cleanup and remediation, and avoiding the blame game.

“Looking for someone to blame will become a distraction,” he said.

The 93-page report from 2012 includes an analysis of the chemicals, the extent of contamination in Michigan, health effects on the human population and, finally, "brainstorming" recommendations on what the state should do to respond to the issue.

Delaney recommended upper management in various state agencies be educated on the “statewide human health crisis” related to autoimmune and neurologic disorders and the likely roots of those issues in chemicals in the environment.

Delaney recommended the governor and lieutenant governor be notified once “upper management” at the agencies were convinced of the issue. He advised the state partner with health advocacy groups that would build “consensus in the public that the problem is real,” as well as collaborate with the Air Force, EPA and state universities.

“If the Air Force acts as if the state and everyone is out to get them, and works to shield themselves rather than letting the science go where it will, it would be an enormous opportunity lost,” Delaney wrote.

Delaney recommended a focus group study the risks of perfluoroalkyl chemicals, determine any data gaps, propose regulatory action and examine whether existing law was adequate to address the situation. The state should test municipal and private wells, waterways and sediment, he wrote.

The state also should begin testing blood serum, hair and umbilical cord blood to measure contaminant levels, Delay recommended, as well as monitor the food supply from countries such as China and Brazil where the chemicals were still in use.

The contaminants’ presence in the Great Lakes and in animal and plant life “indicate a significant exposure,” he warned.

 “Their ubiquitous nature in the environment, in our homes, in our food, water, and human blood, along with their almost indestructible nature in the environment, make them a high priority in the research community and for governments around the world,” Delaney wrote.

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