Whitmer directs state agencies to avoid purchases of PFAS products

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Wednesday directed state agencies to prioritize the purchase of products that do not contain perfluoralkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, a group of chemicals used commonly in household products since the 1940s. 

Whitmer directed her departments to require suppliers to provide information on whether and why products contain the chemical group and identify alternative products that don't contain the chemical, with preference given to the products that don't contain the chemicals.

The directive will influence the $2.5 billion worth of annual purchasing power the state has, especially when it comes to the purchase of state-level products that might contain the chemicals such as office furniture, sanitary supplies and carpeting.

The State Administrative Board will be responsible for monitoring compliance with the new requirements, Whitmer's directive said. 

"While this is a good step, we still have so much more to do to address these forever chemicals," Whitmer said Wednesday after a stop at the Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Oscoda, which has struggled to address PFAS contamination.

"We need to lead with science and work together to keep families safe and ensure Michigan continues leading the nation when it comes to protecting people from toxic contaminants," Whitmer said. 

PFAS foam gathers at the the Van Etten Creek dam in Oscoda Township, Mich., near Wurtsmith Air Force Base.
Michigan is working to reduce its use of firefighting foam with PFAS. The topic will be discussed at the Great Lakes Virtual PFAS Summit Dec. 6-10.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, said the executive directive is largely a "symbolic" gesture that "doesn't move the needle at all on the troubling PFAS contamination plaguing our state from industrial and military waste." 

He urged her to instead focus on the water crisis in Benton Harbor, where elevated lead in water levels have plagued the city for three years

“If the governor wants to do something meaningful to protect our water, she can do two things, right now: Make sure families who need it have access to clean water and proceed with the new Line 5 so that our Great Lakes are safe for the long term," Shirkey said in a statement. 

The chemical group called PFAS has been found to break down slowly — earning the moniker "forever chemicals" — and can accumulate in the environment and human body over time. Research so far indicates the chemicals can have harmful effects on human health.

The chemicals were used to create non-stick surfaces for products such as firefighting, foam, Scotchgard, Teflon and food wrappers. They have been associated with such health risks as thyroid disease, increased cholesterol levels and kidney and testicular cancers.

"The governor's executive directive makes clear that forever chemicals have no place in our bodies or our environment, said Tony Spaniola, co-chair of the Great Lakes PFAS Action Network. "We urge businesses across Michigan to follow Gov. Whitmer's lead and remove PFAS from the products they sell, not just to state agencies, but to all Michiganders."

Not all PFAS chemicals are the same or should be treated with "blanket restrictions," said John Dulmes, executive director for the Michigan Chemistry Council. The council will engage with the governor to better understand her action and "how we can continue to work to address real concerns," he said. 

“According to EPA, approximately 600 PFAS substances are manufactured or in use today, each with its own unique properties and valuable uses, from cellphones to solar panels, for which alternatives are not always available," Dulmes said. "In fact, PFAS provide significant support for our nation’s supply chain resiliency.”

Michigan has been a leader in identifying and addressing problematic PFAS levels in water supplies, starting under Republican former Gov. Rick Snyder and continuing under Whitmer's administration. 

In August 2020, the state began operating under some of the strictest rules in the nation limiting the presence of seven PFAS chemcials in 2,700 public water supplies. 

The rules set maximum contaminant levels at 6 parts per trillion for PFNA; 8 ppt for PFOA; 400,000 ppt for PFHxA; 16 ppt for PFOS; 51 ppt for PFHxS; 420 ppt for PFBS and 370 ppt for HFPO-DA or Gen X.

At the time, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s current health advisory level is 70 ppt for PFOA and PFOS exposure through drinking water.

Earlier this month, the Biden administration announced plans to regulate and accelerate the cleanup of PFAS substances, as well as the development and implementation of a national drinking water standard by 2023.

Starting in the 1970s, the Department of Defense used firefighting foam containing PFOS and sometimes PFOA for emergency response and training, leading to the contamination of groundwater around military installations including at the Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Oscoda. 

Staff writer Melissa Nann Burke contributed.