Report: Michigan has most PFAS sites in nation

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News
Kevin George sorts through mountains of data at Merit Laboratories in East Lansing, which tests drinking water for the PFAS contaminant.

Michigan has the most PFAS sites in the nation, but state officials are improving testing and accountability for the harmful substances, according to report released Monday by a national environmental advocacy group.

The report finds that Michigan has 192 PFAS sites, much higher than the state's 49 official contamination sites. The report's number is much higher because the Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Working Group includes sites like schools or apartment buildings where testing found levels of PFAS below the federal health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion — in many cases, showing minute traces such as 2 parts or 4 parts per trillion.

The group is seeking a PFAS standard of 1 part per trillion because it considers the chemicals to be incredibly toxic. PFAS are a class of chemicals long used in firefighting foam, tanneries, metal platers, Scotchgard and Teflon. They have been linked to health risks such as thyroid disease, increased cholesterol levels, and kidney and testicular cancers.

The Environmental Working Group teamed up with the Social Science Environmental Health Research Institute at Northeastern University to study and map the effects of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, the so-called forever chemicals.

The interactive map with data updated through March show at least 610 locations in 43 states that now has traces to large amounts of PFAS in the drinking water systems of an estimated 19 million people. The data comes from the federal Safe Drinking Water Information System which has tracked PFAS contamination with data from the states, the group said.

The PFAS has been primarily found at airports, industrial plants and dumps, military bases and firefighter training sites. State testing found a Grand Haven area school and Parchment Township's water system near Kalamazoo had excessive levels of PFAS.

Bill Walker, the vice president and editor in chief of the Environmental Working Group, said the PFAS "contamination problem is obviously severe" in Michigan, but the high number of cases is largely due to the state's aggressive efforts. 

"Truly, it's sort of like a good news-bad news thing in that Michigan's clearly the epicenter of a crisis right now but the state's effort is really making our point for us in that when you look for the stuff, you do find it," Walker said. "We still believe that we are still only seeing sort of the tip of the iceberg of contamination nationwide because not every place has had the kind of comprehensive testing that Michigan is undertaking."

The Michigan PFAS Action Response Team's formal vetting process has confirmed 49 contaminated sites and there are four additional areas of interest, according to officials from the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy.

EGLE spokesman Scott Dean did not dispute the report's findings but said "the only reason Michigan shows a large number of PFAS sites is because we are one of the few states that is actively looking for the contamination."

“While most states are taking a wait-and-see approach and the federal government moves slowly, here in Michigan, we’re committed to working together to root out this contaminant, protect at-risk populations, and drive down exposure levels," Dean said. "No state is moving faster along so many fronts.

Robinson Elementary School in Grand Haven has tested positive for PFAS contamination.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer also has ordered state environmental experts to begin developing stricter drinking water standards for PFAS compounds because the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is taking too long to create its own new guidelines.

"I haven't seen anything like it in any other state," Walker said. "Michigan is not only looking at drinking water, they are testing private wells, they've tested surface water, they've tested ground water. They've even issued advisories for fish and wildlife, which I'm not really sure any other state has done."

Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, who has criticized the EPA for moving too slowly on improving standards for PFAS testing, said the PFAS problem in Michigan screams for attention.

"This study confirms what we already know: The PFAS crisis is impacting many communities across Michigan and the country," he said in a statement. "We cannot afford to wait any longer to address PFAS contamination, which can have devastating health impacts. That’s why I’m continuing to work on efforts in the Senate to ensure our drinking water is safe, prevent exposure to contamination, reduce harm to human health and expedite clean-up and assistance for affected communities."

Alexis Temkin, a toxicologist for the Environmental Working Group, said the state monitoring is "very helpful" especially for tap water.

A broken regulatory system has resulted in people being exposed to contaminated drinking water, Temkin said.

"Now we a public health risk because of that," she said.

(313) 222-2620