Michigan PFAS director testifies at U.S. House hearing

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News
Equipment used to test for PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl chemicals) in drinking water at Trident Laboratories in Holland, pictured on Monday, June 18, 2018. Trident Labs added testing for perfluorinated chemicals, known as PFAS, in March after toxic contamination was identified at a former tannery near Rockford.

Washington — The head of Michigan's PFAS taskforce testified Thursday on Capitol Hill in support of a bipartisan bill aiming to expedite the federal government's detection of contamination by the harmful fluorinated chemicals. 

The PFAS Detection Act, which has also been introduced in the Senate, would authorize $45 million over five years for the U.S. Geological Survey to coordinate with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to develop a performance standard and new technologies to detect PFAS in the environment.

The bill is sponsored by Reps. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township, and Jack Bergman, R-Watersmeet. 

It also requires the Geological Survey to conduct nationwide sampling for PFAS chemicals to determine the concentration of PFAS compounds in water, air and soil, starting with areas with confirmed or suspected contamination.

Michigan testing has identified at least 54 sites statewide where high levels of PFAS have been detected. 

"We have this many because we are looking, not because we have more contamination than anywhere else," Steve Sliver, executive director of the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team, told a House Natural Resources subcommittee. 

PFAS refers to a class of nearly 5,000 chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, which for decades have been used to make carpets, clothing, furniture fabrics, and packaging resistant to water, grease or stains.

Starting in the 1970s, the Department of Defense used firefighting foam containing two well-known PFAS compounds — PFOS and sometimes PFOA — for emergency response and training. 

The chemicals are linked to health effects including certain cancers and damage to liver and immunity functions, developmental impacts on fetuses, as well as cognitive and behavioral effects in exposed children. 

"We're finding it in our drinking water. We're finding in surface water, we're finding it in wastewater, we're finding it in landfills. ... We're finding it in fish tissue, we're finding it in deer tissue," Sliver said.  

"Given how ubiquitous they are in society, we would not be surprised to find them in many different media, and that's really the value of having a very systematic approach to looking across the country and all the different media to say, OK, where should we be targeting our efforts based on what we're finding?"

Kildee asked Sliver why testing for PFAS is so expensive. 

"The analytical costs alone are very expensive. We were paying over $500 per single drinking water sample last year, and costs have come down a little but but there's not a lot of capacity nationally to address that," Sliver replied.