More legislation needed to control emerging contaminants
by ELINOR EPPERSON
Contamination by PFAS and other “perpetual chemicals” should be a priority for elected officials in southeast Michigan, lawmakers and attorneys said in a virtual town hall on Monday, Sept. 13, Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor).
“PFAS is everywhere,” said State Representative Yousef Rabhi (D-Ann Arbor). “PFAS” stands for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, a family of man-made chemicals that has been in use around the world since the 1940s.
PFAS is used in a wide variety of household and commercial products to make them grease or water resistant. It can be found in food packaging, non-stick cookware and fire-fighting foams. These chemicals can get into drinking water or food and stay there for a very long time, earning them the nickname “chemicals forever”.
“They are very slippery,” says Rebecca Meuninck, which means that PFAS compounds penetrate various substances quickly and are difficult to filter out. Meuninck is the associate director of the Ann Arbor Ecology Center, a nonprofit that conducts studies and provides public education on a variety of environmental health topics. At the town hall, Meuninck stressed that avoiding exposure to PFAS is the best way to protect the community’s health.
PFAS builds up in organic tissue over time and is very difficult to break down due to the “strong carbon-fluorine bonds” that are part of all PFAS compounds. According to the EPA, PFAS can negatively affect liver tissue, pregnancy outcomes, and thyroid and cholesterol levels. PFOA, a PFAS compound, has been linked to cancer in humans.
“They are useful, but also very harmful,” says Meuninck. There are over 5,000 types of PFAS compounds, making them difficult to research and regulate. In addition to consumer goods, PFAS is also used in several manufacturing processes. Factories producing auto parts, leather, and paint have contaminated multiple locations in Michigan.
This type of contamination led Sandy Wynn-Stelt and Robert Kerr to set up the Great Lakes PFAS Action Network (GLPAN) this year. The organization is working to connect those directly affected by PFAS contamination with experts like the Ecology Center.
Wynn-Stelt and Kerr spoke at City Hall about their personal experiences with industrial PFAS contamination in West Michigan. Wynn-Stelt’s drinking water has been contaminated by a tannery that has been operated by Wolverine World Wide since 1958.
The Michigan PFAS Response and Action Team (MPART), founded in 2017 by order of then Governor Rick Snyder, has investigated possible sources of PFAS in drinking water. So far, she has identified over 180 contaminated sites in the state. Six of them are in Washtenaw County.
This does not include the Tribar-owned Adept Plastics Finishing Inc. facility that city officials said is the source of PFAS contamination in the Huron River by multiple counties.
The Environmental Working Group, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to reforming chemical safety and agriculture laws in the United States, estimates that up to 2,400 drinking water systems across the country are contaminated with PFAS. The EPA issues health warnings for areas with proven PFAS levels of 70 parts per trillion or more. However, this advice is “unenforceable and non-regulatory” and exists only to guide state, local, and tribal governments.
“The regulations have not caught up with the problem posed by PFAS,” Rabhi said in the town hall. He recently introduced HB 5250 to the Michigan House of Representatives. The bill provides for a ban on the manufacture, sale and distribution of food packaging containing PFAS, bisphenols or phthalates. Rabhi wants to make sure that Michigan residents “don’t buy poison.”
Rabhi is also a proponent of “pollution bills,” which would require private entities polluting a certain area to pay for cleaning. In 2019, Rabhi and Irwin introduced identical laws in their respective chambers requiring companies to pay for the cleaning of any drinking water source they contaminated. The bill never left the house.
“We have no way of stopping [polluters] responsible, ”said Wynn-Stelt in town hall. Currently, the only way to pay polluters for cleaning is through litigation. In 2017, the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE), Plainfield and Algoma Townships sued Wolverine World Wide for disposing of PFAS-containing tannery waste in the townships’ groundwater supplies. The company agreed on $ 69.5 million in 2020.
At the federal level, US MP Debbie Dingell (D-Ann Arbor) sponsored HR 2467, also known as the PFAS Action Act of 2021. When the bill goes into effect, PFAS would be placed on a list of “hazardous chemicals” that the federal government makes legal obliged to clean. HR 2467 passed the US House of Representatives and has been in the Senate since the end of July.
“We must have the political will to phase out all non-essential applications of PFAS,” says Meuninck. She hopes the Michigan legislation will be similar to a “comprehensive” package of laws recently passed in Maine.
Meanwhile, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services has already issued warnings warning residents not to touch buildup of foam on the Huron River or eat fish caught there. In order to filter out as much PFAS as possible from the drinking water supply, the city installed large activated carbon granulate filters in the water treatment plant in 2017. The Ann Arbor fire department has switched to a PFAS-free extinguishing foam.
“The city of Ann Arbor did a good job,” says Meuninck. Even so, she encourages Ann Arbor residents to purchase a filter for their home water. A reverse osmosis filter is best for catching the PFAS compounds that city utilities cannot catch. MPART recommends residents who get their drinking water from a well to have their well water tested.
Meuninck also encourages anyone involved with PFAS to visit GLPAN’s website and get involved. By spreading awareness and working with lawmakers to regulate PFAS use, Michigan can “finally shut off the tap in Michigan on PFAS contamination.”
To see a recording of the entire town hall, click here. To learn more about the health effects of PFAS exposure, visit this Ecology Center webinar.