Op-Ed by NATHAN INKS
Just what Michigan needs, a new potential water contamination problem has emerged on the horizon. Over the past few months, increasing attention has been drawn to water supplies contaminated by a harmful group of chemicals known as per- and poly-fluoroalkyls (PFAS). Contamination is not unique to Michigan, but given the importance of the Great Lakes to the state, Michigan has been one of the states at the forefront of this issue.
Different PFAS chemicals have been used for decades. The chemicals were used by the Department of Defense, airports, and fire departments in fire suppressants, and other forms of PFAS have been used in industrial settings. Although studies have shown that exposure to the chemicals can cause liver problems and an increased risk of cancer, there is significant uncertainty about the long-term effects of exposure and what amounts of exposure are unsafe.
There is currently little regulation over the chemicals. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has established an advisory level for drinking water of 70 parts-per-trillion (ppt), but a recent study from the Centers for Disease Control questioned whether that level is too high.
Testing data from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality recently revealed that PFAS can be found in the drinking water supplies for as many as 1.5 million Michiganders, but only one municipal water supply, in Kalamazoo County, has been found to have levels higher than the 70 ppt advisory limit. Due to the lack of sufficient information about the long-term effects of PFAS and whether the 70 ppt limit is an appropriate limit, whether there is cause for alarm in these figures is still unknown.
But if there is one thing Michigan residents and lawmakers should have learned from environmental disasters like the Flint water crisis and the dioxin pollution in the Tittabawassee River by Dow Chemical in the 1970s, it is that we need to take proactive steps when it comes to water pollution—before devastating consequences occur.
One course of action that needs to be pursued is for the EPA to establish enforceable standards for the compounds. In addition to evaluating whether the 70 ppt limit for drinking water is appropriate, Congress and the EPA need to work toward establishing enforceable limits for drinking water, groundwater, and soil. As part of setting these standards, more research needs to be done on what constitutes safe levels of PFAS. Fortunately, a bipartisan group of Michigan congressional representatives has already called on the EPA to take action.
If the federal government does not move on the issue quick enough, action at the state level may be necessary. Michigan has already established enforceable drinking water standards that follow the EPA’s 70 ppt advisory limit, but given research questioning whether this limit is appropriate, the state should consider revisiting the limit. Regardless of whether the federal government acts, the state needs to continue educating the public about PFAS. The state launched the Michigan PFAS Action and Response Team (MPART) in 2017, but efforts to further educate the public are still necessary— especially in areas where PFAS levels are higher and already causing problems.
Michigan’s water supply plays an integral role in the state’s economy. PFAS contamination of our rivers and lakes could have disastrous consequences; in addition to the potential health consequences, the state’s economy could be damaged if the compounds affect fishing or tourism on the Great Lakes.
It is imperative that we address this issue before it is too late, and setting appropriate standards should be done as soon as possible. In the meantime, in order to avoid a disastrous repeat of the Flint water crisis, transparency and education about the risks of PFAS are key