Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances have been highly valued by industry as useful in a wide variety of products. But, as more studies are conducted and more information comes to light, the more concerns grow. In this first of 89.1 WEMU's five-part series on PFAS, we explore the growing list of health issues associated with PFAS, in " The Green Room."
Host Intro-David Fair (DF): This is 89-1 WEMU and I'm David Fair and welcome to "The Green Room." PFAS chemicals have become a significant environmental concern, of late, but they were introduced back in the 1950’s, with Teflon and Scotchguard. Since then, industry has added them to a myriad of products, from firefighting foam and food wrappers, to carpeting and car seats. In the first of a five-part series on PFAS, Barbara Lucas explores the health impacts of these substances that have become so ubiquitous in our lives.
Barbara Lucas (BL): A couple months ago, I was jogging around Argo Pond in the Huron River. Rounding the bend under the M-14 freeway bridge, I saw something that stopped me in my tracks: scores and scores of big pillows of white foam floating down the river—like chunks off an iceberg—many a foot high and several feet long.
BL: I knew that last fall, foam on the Huron tested positive for PFAS. So I took photos of these floating pillows, and emailed them to Gerald Tiernan of Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy. Tiernan responded: “…the foam likely has some detectable concentrations of PFAS.” And he forwarded the State’s advisory, warning that people and pets, should not even touch the foam on water bodies in Michigan. The advisory says that while swimming or bathing in water that contains PFAS is not a health risk, the foam may contain much higher concentrations.
BL: So what is PFAS? Reading from the EPA website: “Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances are a group of man-made chemicals that includes PFOA, PFOS, GenX, and many other chemicals.” Until recently, PFAS not on the radar in Michigan. While problems with it were emerging in places like West Virginia, Michigan seemed relatively unscathed. One of the first to raise the alarm in our state was Bob Delaney.
Robert Delaney: I’m an environmental quality specialist at the State of Michigan. I do want to state that I am not speaking on behalf of the state of Michigan. This is my own time and I will be speaking as a private citizen.
BL: Once created by humans, PFAS chemicals are here to stay, in our environment, and in our bodies. That fact was a red flag for Delaney.
Delaney: Nature has never seen them there, and they're actually used because they're so indestructible.
BL: Over eight years ago, he began investigating PFAS in Michigan.
Delaney: When I learned about this stuff, I literally felt like I was standing at the edge of the abyss looking down into hell--that I'd never seen chemicals like this.
BL: He and a colleague produced an extensive report, which in 2012, they submitted to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. They were hoping to get the problem taken seriously.
Delaney: And I knew right from the start they were everywhere, and that they were toxic.
BL: “Everywhere” is right: Testing nationwide shows that pretty much everyone has base levels of PFAS in their bodies. And those who live near hot spots often test much higher than the general population. To get a feel for the potential health impacts of high levels, I speak with Dr. Richard Rediske.
Richard Rediske: I'm a Professor of Water Resources at the Annis Water Resources Institute of Grand Valley State University.
BL: Dr. Rediske has been serving as a scientific advisor for a group of citizen activists in Rockford Michigan, which is one of the nation’s most PFAS-contaminated areas. Like Delaney, Rediske sees many red flags when it comes to PFAS.
Rediske: The three warning signs are that it's water soluble: it spreads, it doesn't degrade and it circulates in your blood. I mean those are really not good things.
BL: He says PFAS binds to protein, affects sex hormones, and is in breast milk.
Rediske: It’s something to be of concern. It is passed directly to the fetus and then because the baby's diet is all liquids they actually drink more water than an adult does. So the childhood exposure is much higher than adult exposure a lot of times.
(Sounds of people enjoying the "Argo Cascades")
BL: Some industries that manufacture PFAS chemicals have known for a long time that there were health impacts. As more studies are done outside of industry, and results become public, concern is growing. This handwashing station is a case in point. It’s at the end of the “Cascades,” a wildly popular series of manmade waterfalls downstream of Argo Pond in the Huron River. It’s positively jammed with tubers. Luckily, there’s no foam in sight. In fact, I haven’t seen any foam here all summer. But out of an abundance of caution, the City of Ann Arbor recently installed this spigot for tubers to use when they leave the river.
(Fade out sounds of the cascades)
BL: The Ann Arbor-based Ecology Center is a leader in campaigns against toxins. So I consult with Dr. Rebecca Mueninck, their Deputy Director. Along with testing for PFAS content in products, the Ecology Center is working on…
Rebecca Mueninck: Setting drinking water standards and what we can do to prevent future exposures like banning the use of PFAS in firefighting foam.
BL: We discuss the results of research, such as the huge study of almost 70,000 people in Ohio and West Virginia who were exposed to PFOA from a Teflon manufacturing plant. This and other studies have found potential links to a long list of health problems: Changes in liver, pancreas and thyroid function. Issues with blood pressure, cholesterol, immune systems, and hormones. Higher incidences of colitis, cancers, and infertility. I especially ask Meuninck about a study I came across that I’d found rather shocking, on boys in Italy.
Meuninck: … of the genitalia to see if there are changes associated with high levels of PFAS. And unfortunately they found that there were. They found that there were statistically significant changes in that those young men had smaller penis sizes, and lower sperm counts.
BL: All kinds of different health impacts, and being found all over the world. But regardless of the health issue in question, those at highest risk are often…
Meuninck: …workers who are going to be more directly exposed to these chemicals in their work environment .
BL: What about the majority of people—those who don’t work with PFAS chemicals on the job, but who are accumulating low levels due the many products in their lives that contain PFAS? For instance, knowing that “water-resistance” is often accomplished with PFAS chemicals, I ask Meuninck if I should worry about my new raincoat.
Meuninck: You may not have a huge amount of exposure when you're wearing a raincoat that's treated with PFAS. However, somewhere someone is living downstream from a factory that produced that raincoat and has perhaps, like we have here, you know not because of raincoats, but has exposure to PFAS chemicals in their drinking water.
BL: Riding my bike while wearing my new raincoat, I get to wondering: why am I more concerned about my raincoat than my bicycling? I know that biking is risky. I’ve seen the cold, hard stats on fatalities. So why do I, along with the rest of society, feel so much more urgency about addressing PFAS, whose dangers, and what to do about them, are so much fuzzier? I discuss this Dr. Rediske.
Rediske: So, there are certain things that we decide to do and we accept the risk. And then there's what we call involuntary risks where we don't associate you know chemicals in water as something that we would have risk just like chemicals in food. So, it comes down to voluntary versus involuntary risks.
BL: There’s also something elemental about clean water, food, and air. In fact, many consider them human rights. In upcoming segments of our Green Room series on PFAS, we’ll explore further questions, such as those posed by Bob Delaney:
Delaney: What I really want people to ask is how did we get to this point. And then, what are we going to change so that we can move forward?
BL: In “The Green Room,” I’m Barbara Lucas, 89 One, WEMU News.
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