State study: PFAS found in 179 Michigan water supplies, but only 2 exceed fed threshold

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Water supplies serving roughly 1.9 million Michigan residents tested positive for an emerging class of chemical contaminants in 2018, but only two supplies tested above federal health advisory levels for those chemicals.

A report detailing the results from the state's $1.7 million study of 1,741 water sources serving 7.7 million residents was released Friday by the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team.  

Foam along the Huron River can be seen downstream from the Barton Dam in the Barton Nature Area in Ann Arbor.

It identified supplies serving the city of Parchment in Kalamazoo County and a Grand Haven area elementary school as exceeding federal standards.

The sampling data for per- and polyflouroalkyl substances has been posted to a state website since last year as it is received, but the report released Friday seeks to better explain and detail results for the 14 PFAS chemicals measured, said Ian Smith, emerging contaminants and issues coordinator for EGLE’s Drinking Water and Environmental Health Division.

“We wanted to try to create an easily accessible data set for everybody,” Smith said. “That was one of the goals of this report.”

The news is largely encouraging, Smith said, noting that roughly 90 percent of the water samples taken came back as non-detect for PFAS.

The study and other planned subsequent testing is a “necessary first step,” the Michigan League of Conservation Voters said in a statement Friday. But the group urged the Legislature to move swiftly to fund clean drinking water programs and establish a new threshold for PFAS levels in drinking water.

“It is time for the very polluters responsible for this contamination to be held financially responsible for this work as well,” said Bob Allison, the league’s deputy director. “Taxpayers should not be on the hook for the millions of dollars spent testing and cleaning up PFAS contamination when we often know the direct source of the pollution.” 

PFAS encompasses a large class of chemicals once widely used to make such items as furniture, food wrappings and cookware that are resistant to water, grease or stains under brand names such as Scotchgard or Teflon. It also has been used in firefighting foams.

Experts believe the chemicals are linked to health effects including certain cancers, developmental impacts on fetuses, cognitive and behavior effects in kids and damage to liver and immune functions.

Republican former Gov. Rick Snyder began testing community water supplies for the chemical in April 2018 and concluded the sampling of 1,112 community water supplies, 460 schools, 152 daycares, and 17 tribal entities in December.

Michigan’s comprehensive testing, response and research of the chemical has been considered some of the earliest in the country as the science and federal regulations surrounding the chemical lag behind.

“At the time that we did that, that was unique across the nation,” Smith said. “We’ve had a very proactive approach to how we’re testing for PFAS in our water.”

The state had previously announced and began addressing high PFAS levels in water samples from the city of Parchment and Robinson Elementary School near Grand Haven, which both tested above the federal health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion for PFOA and PFOS. Together, the city and school water supplies serve 3,500 people.

Investigations into the contaminant source for both sites are ongoing, Smith said.

About 62 water supplies serving 490,000 people tested between 10 and 70 ppt for PFOA and PFOS and were encouraged to test quarterly to determine whether the levels are consistent.

“What the state did do ultimately is find the funds to do (monitoring) for those systems,” Smith said. “It is not inexpensive analysis.”

Another 115 water supplies serving 1.4 million people tested positive for PFAS but fell below the 10 ppt threshold. Those water supplies and the 1,565 that had non-detect levels were encouraged to include PFAS testing in their annual performance monitoring.

Sample collection for Phase 2 of the statewide water testing encompassing 590 additional locations should conclude Oct. 1, but a summary of those results might not be available for some time.

Environmentalists and some lawmakers have expressed concern with the federal health advisory levels for PFAS, noting that the 70 ppt threshold might be too high to protect human health.

Sen. Winnie Brinks, D-Grand Rapids, has argued for more than a year that the levels should be as low as 5 ppt. PFAS levels in Kent County have been among the worst in the state in part because of a tannery in the area that used the chemicals in production.

In June, the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team released new health-based values for several PFAS chemicals, including an 8 ppt threshold for PFOA and a 16 ppt threshold for PFOS.

“Those values are being used as a starting point for the rule-making process,” said Smith. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has created an accelerated timeline for that process and has requested draft rules from the group by Oct. 1.

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