PFAS panel: Drinking water standards for chemical may be too lenient

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News
Equipment used to test for PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl chemicals) in drinking water at Trident Laboratories in Holland, Mich., pictured on Monday, June 18, 2018. Trident Labs added testing for perfluorinated chemicals, known as PFAS, in March after toxic contamination was identified at a former tannery near Rockford.

Lansing — An independent science panel has recommended Michigan lower its drinking water health advisory level for per- and polyfluoroalkyl, but changes are unlikely to be adopted before year's end.

The 90-page report from the state’s PFAS Science Advisory Committee released Tuesday includes extensive research on the emerging contaminant long used in firefighting foam, tanneries, metal platers, Scotchgard and Teflon. The report makes 17 recommendations for future action on the issue, some of which already are being done by the state.

The report cites several pieces of evidence indicating levels of PFAS lower than 70 parts per trillion — the current state and U.S. EPA health advisory level for drinking water — can hurt human health. PFAS has some links to negative health effects such as thyroid disease, increased cholesterol levels, and kidney and testicular cancers

But the report stops short of recommending a new level. Instead, the panel recommended the state adopt a level similar to agencies that have based theirs on toxicological outcomes, develop a level based on epidemiological findings or a new level based on a combination of both toxicological and epidemiological data.

The panel of scientists who researched and prepared the report over the past six months admitted that research on PFAS is sparse, but enough to acknowledge 70 ppt may be too high of a drinking water standard, said Dr. David Savitz, a Brown University professor of epidemiology and chairman of the state’s science panel.

“It’s not an ideal situation, where every state, every agency even within the federal government is trying to reach their own judgement,” Savitz said. “I think it’s a very confusing message to the public.”

Gov. Rick Snyder believes a review of the panel’s recommendations combined with a review of PFAS nationwide “needs to be done as soon as possible next year so that the appropriate policies and standards can be enacted in Michigan,” his spokesman Ari Adler said.

In a phone call with reporters, Carol Isaacs, director for the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team, said the study had been shared with the incoming administration of Democrat Gretchen Whitmer as well as some suggestions for follow-up.

A new standard could be developed in “a matter of weeks,” Isaacs said. “But that would be after you assemble the group of people who should, in all fairness, be part of a process where we are setting standards to protect public health.”

Democratic Rep. Winnie Brinks of Grand Rapids criticized the timing of the report and delays that have pushed reform into 2019. Brinks introduced a bill last year that would lower the drinking water health advisory level from 70 ppt to 5 ppt, but the bill has yet to see any movement in the House.

“We’re still at this position where they aren’t making a definitive recommendation that would actually protect the health of our constituents,” Brinks said.

In the meantime, bills approved by the Legislature would make it harder to adopt an environmental rule stricter than federal standards and another that sets toxicology standards for contaminated land are headed to the governor’s desk, Brinks said.

“It’s my hope that the governor will veto these bills,” Brinks said.

Among the recommendations from the group were suggestions to continue looking at the effects of PFAS in both animal and human data, continue testing water systems and look at all options for remediation, ensure proper disposal of the chemical, and explore the effects of lesser known PFAS chemicals such as PFSA, PFCA and the replacement chemical GenX.

This year, the state tested more hundreds of community water supplies, school water supplies, day care centers, some testing of private wells, and surveys of more than a thousand fire stations and airports.

The testing is some of the most extensive in the nation, Isaacs said, and the science panel’s report is sure to “be read across the nation because this remains a national issue.”

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