State delayed in creating lab to test for PFAS water contamination

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News
Jessica Hart and Chad McAlvey work at Merit Labs in East Lansing, using the Liquid Cromatography-Mass Spectrometry machine in the foreground to search for the compounds.

The state of Michigan has been delayed a year in creating its own PFAS chemical testing laboratory for drinking water and has relied on private facilities that it expects will eventually be overwhelmed by other states requesting contaminant tests.

The state has spent nearly $2 million on private testing of drinking water to identify potentially toxic PFAS chemicals and could spend another $2.8 million this year before ever bringing the task in house. The state lab is essential for Michigan, but it likely won't be ready until September at the earliest, the state's PFAS action team leader said.

Of the roughly $6 million set aside for PFAS drinking water testing in 2018 and 2019, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality has spent $1.5 million in the quest to update its laboratory and begin testing drinking water sources for the ubiquitous "forever chemicals" contaminant.

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a class of chemicals 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.

As public knowledge and concern about the contaminants spreads, laboratories and state agencies are grappling with the evolving science surrounding testing, the appropriate thresholds to protect public health and the proper removal of the chemicals in Michigan and beyond.

So far, private labs in East Lansing and California have performed the delicate and time-consuming task of testing Michigan's drinking water, completing roughly $1.9 million in drinking water testing in 2018. 

The Michigan PFAS Action Response Team in 2018 tested nearly 1,600 drinking water systems and schools for PFAS contamination. The state got a hit for PFAS on nearly 10 percent of those tested, but only two breached the Environmental Protection Agency's health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion — the city of Parchment and an elementary school near Grand Haven.

In late July 2018, PFAS levels in Parchment's drinking water were 26 times the federal health advisory standard. During the same month, Merit Laboratories in East Lansing decided to start taking requests for private well testing.

“When Parchment happened, we started just getting bombarded with phone calls,” said Maya Murshak, CEO and technical director for Merit Laboratories, who noted the $200 to $300 expense previously deterred many from seeking the analysis. “People are worried. They want to sleep at night. They want to know what’s in their water.”

The federal slow pace in pursuing new drinking water standards has further complicated the situation. The varying levels of state response and public health standards create a patchwork of enforcement that is not easily navigated by scientists studying the issue. 

“It’s a different universe depending on who you’re talking to,” said Amy Dindal, PFAS program manager for Battelle Labs in West Palm Beach, Florida. “That’s the challenge of not having a federal standard.”

State testing

The “forever chemicals” are extremely slow to break down, more so even than an oil spill, which bacteria will eventually consume and destroy, Murshak said.

Maya Murshak, CEO and technical director for Merit Laboratories in East Lansing, says the standard turnaround for PFAS testing is three weeks and the data analysis is lengthy: Six samples generate more than a thousand pages of data.

Murshak’s family-owned East Lansing laboratory and Vista Analytical in California have been leading state PFAS testing for the past year.

The DEQ lab was supposed to be online in early 2018, but a change in the preferred federal PFAS testing methodology delayed the launch, said MPART Director Steve Sliver.

The state environmental department has spent nearly $1.5 million to outfit the lab with the appropriate equipment and testing supplies, but doesn't expect to have its quality assurance process down pat until the fall. When it's up and running, the state estimates it will be able to run 20 samples a day, Sliver said. 

Other hurdles facing state and private scientists include questions about sampling standards, which PFAS chemicals to test for, which testing methods to use and how to treat the contaminant once identified.

"You’ve got a method out there that not even a lot of labs did two or three years ago," Sliver said. 

Because it is utilizing a different testing method, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services has been able to test for PFAS in non-drinking water samples, such as waste water, blood serum and fish, Sliver said. 

With its initial round of community drinking water testing completed, the DEQ will focus its efforts this year on additional drinking water sources and day cares, before aiding in the testing of groundwater, surface water, waste water and soil samples.

The DEQ also plans to continue regular monitoring of community drinking water supplies that tested positive for PFAS in 2018 but didn't breach EPA guidelines.

Prepping the labs

The year-long slate of PFAS tests in Michigan was a serious investment for Merit Laboratories.

During peak times during the 2018 testing, the East Lansing facility was processing up to 100 PFAS samples a day. The standard turnaround for PFAS testing is three weeks and the data analysis associated with the test is lengthy: Six samples generate more than a thousand pages of data, Murshak said.

The equipment to test for the chemical — which uses a technique called liquid chromatography with tandem mass spectrometry — costs about $600,000 and identifies PFAS chemicals down to 10 parts per trillion, Murshak said. One part per trillion is the equivalent of one teardrop in 20 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

But the real trial for labs attempting to perform PFAS testing is the array of lab equipment that already contains the chemicals, Murshak said. Commonplace lab items had to be discarded because they have been known to contain Teflon and perflourinated compounds (PFCs).

“When we got our instruments to test for (PFAS), some of the lines the instrument had in it had PFCs in them,” Murshak said.

Kevin George sorts through mountains of data at Merit Labs in East Lansing.

Dindal of Battelle Labs acknowledged that the PFAS testing process isn't an easy one.

Battelle, a 90-year-old nonprofit research and development firm headquartered in Columbus, Ohio, has been developing different tools for PFAS assessment and remediation for several years. Though there are dozens of larger labs throughout the nation testing for PFAS, the preparation for that class of testing is difficult and accreditation is even harder, Dindal said. 

“The fact that these compounds are ubiquitous, the fact that they’re used in everyday life, it makes it a challenge to keep the laboratory clean and eliminate cross contamination,” Dindal said.

The private testing hasn’t been easy for the laboratory, Murshak said, largely because of the time it takes to explain to residents both the sampling procedure and the results of the analysis.

“If it’s clean, it's perfect,” Murshak said of the test results. “But if there’s anything in there, it takes hours to explain it.”

The state of Michigan lists a total of four labs, including Merit in East Lansing, that are willing to perform private testing. 

A national standard

The changing standards for PFAS health advisory levels from state to state as well as changing methodology for how to analyze water sources for the chemical create a moving target for many laboratories.

The EPA last month said it planned to create new drinking water standards for PFAS contaminants by the end of the year. In the meantime, states are left to change their thresholds or adjust testing to current EPA guidelines, Dindal said. 

The EPA’s current drinking water health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion has been criticized as too permissive. Michigan legislation recommending a level of 5 ppt has sat idle for more than a year.

A state PFAS science advisory panel concluded levels of PFAS lower than 70 parts per trillion could harm human health. Instead of recommending a new level, however, the panel advised the state to craft a new standard based on toxicological and epidemiological data.

The state's baseline testing last year has created a database of low level PFAS contamination that could prove as a road map for future action should the federal threshold be lowered. For now, the state will conduct quarterly testing of systems with mid-range results, Sliver said. 

"We do have data now that a lot of states don’t have the luxury of having so we can evaluate the impact of changing levels," he said.

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