State wants feds to study PFAS health effects in Michigan

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News
Dr. Eden Wells

Lansing — The state of Michigan wants its communities to be part of federal studies examining the impact of per- and poly-fluoroalkyl contamination on public health.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services plans to apply to be one of six communities examined in a yet-to-be-announced health study by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry and may also apply to participate in a bio-monitoring study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Dr. Eden Wells, an advisory physician to the department's Population Health Administration, announced the opportunities while telling lawmakers about the state’s efforts so far to address the class of chemicals and the need for more research on the issue.

Wells was the chief medical executive for former Gov. Rick Snyder whose hiring late last year into a nearly $180,000-a-year civil service "advisory physician" job raised eyebrows. Well is awaiting trial on involuntary manslaughter and other criminal charges related to the 2014-15 Flint area Legionnaires' disease outbreak that killed 12 people and sickened at least another 79 individuals.

Despite the criminal charges, Wells kept her position as chief medical executive throughout Snyder’s tenure and played an instrumental role on the state task force that began last year addressing PFAS contamination in Michigan.

The state has already begun an exposure assessment of Kent County-area residents  and is considering similar assessments in Parchment, Grayling and near the Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Oscoda. 

“There is a role for blood testing at the community level,” Wells said Thursday, noting that the information gained from community studies can at times prove more helpful than isolated blood tests.  

Wells was joined Thursday by Michigan Department of Environmental Quality Director Liesl Clark and Michigan PFAS Action Response Team Director Steve Sliver as they updated the House Natural Resources Committee on the state’s response to PFAS contamination.

PFAS are a class of chemical popularly used to create non-stick surfaces for products such as firefighting foam, Scotchgard, Teflon and food wrappers. They have been associated with health risks such as thyroid disease, increased cholesterol levels and kidney and testicular cancers.

The chemicals also are extremely difficult to destroy, Wells said.

“Those (carbon fluoride) bonds in chemistry are incredibly difficult to break,” she said. “They’ll hang around in the environment, but they’ll also stay in the body.”

State officials on Thursday outlined MPART’s analysis of nearly 1,600 community water supplies last year and highlighted ongoing work to remediate some of the biggest pollution sites, such as the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base.

Michigan is on the cutting edge of addressing PFAS contamination but officials noted there are still many questions about the class of chemicals that have yet to be answered.

While an individual blood test may discern PFAS levels, the test can’t link that level to an individual’s specific condition or illness, Wells said. At this point, scientists can say some diseases are associated with PFAS exposure, but are unable to say whether the diseases were caused by it, she said.

While the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion for drinking water may be too high, Michigan's science advisory panel did not recommend a new one. And the EPA doesn’t expect to develop a new standard until the end of the year.

While filters have been installed in some communities, it’s not clear whether the filters are capturing all types of PFAS contaminants. Nor are there any good alternatives for disposing of those filters once they’re filled with PFAS.

Even without clear guidelines, the state is taking action to mitigate exposure and protect public health where it can, Sliver said.

“The investigations and the remediations are ongoing while that process continues,” he said.

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