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Issues Of The Environment: Huron River Watershed Council Update On PFAS Legislation And Litigation

Feb 5, 2020

HRWC executive directorRebecca Esselman
Credit D. Brown / Huron River Watershed Council

PFAS contamination continues to threaten Michigan's environment, as well as the health of its citizens.  Over the past month, action at the state level has been taken to fight this problem.  In this week's "Issues of the Environment," Rebecca Esselman, executive director of the Huron River Watershed Council, discusses progress and challenges with WEMU's David Fair.


Overview

  • Michigan spends $25 million per year on finding PFAS contamination, and 1.9 million residents are drinking municipal water with some PFAS; 2.5 million people on public wells drink untested water.  Nearly every county in Michigan has some contaminated water, and municipal water in Ann Arbor and areas of Washtenaw County have had fluctuating levels of the toxin for decades.
  • Tackling PFAS contamination is complex because of the persistent nature of the chemical in the environment.  It is extraordinarily expensive to remove and dispose of PFAS once it is in water or soil.  Add to that a lack of enforceable standards on the state and federal level, and figuring out who pays for cleanup and how much cleanup is necessary has become a tug of war between polluters and advocates for public health. 
  • Residents of Ann Arbor have likely been consuming PFAS for decades, and it is unclear the extent to which personal health has been compromised.  Most PFAS compounds have not been tested for their health implications.  However, preliminary research suggests that PFAS is highly toxic to humans and that some forms of it bioaccumulates in our bodies.  It may increase thyroid disease, decrease fertility in women, cause developmental issues in infants and older children, and increase blood pressure and cholesterol levels.  They have also been linked to increased risks of kidney and testicular cancer.
  • In January 2020, two meaningful steps toward tackling PFAS were initiated.  The Michigan AG’s office filed a lawsuit in Washtenaw County seeking damages from the 17 chemical companies that it asserts is responsible for 74 known sites contaminated with PFAS.  EGLE also hosted 3 public input sessions, and Gov. Whitmer’s office is moving toward strengthening the standards for PFAS and limits on some PFAS compounds.
  • Environmental advocacy groups recommend these meaningful steps:
    • Set a cumulative standard.  In addition to setting numeric standards for individual compounds of PFAS, the state should set a cumulative limit.
    • Require a health review in two years.  The state is moving forward with setting drinking water standards for seven PFAS compounds.  While a step in the right direction, that approach leaves thousands of PFAS compounds unregulated.  The science on the risk and toxicity of PFAS chemicals is rapidly developing; standards set today could be quickly out of date as new research on toxicity comes in. 
    • Conduct at least three years of quarterly sampling.  We do not know enough about how PFAS moves in the environment or if there are seasonal changes to discharges of PFAS to be able to set reduced sampling frequencies.
  • Michigan is leading the pack in addressing PFAS at the state level, and the EPA has not kept pace.  Currently, the EPA’s recommended lifetime health advisory limit is set at 70 parts per trillion (ppt) for PFOA and PFOS (the two best-studied PFAS compounds).  However, a health advisory limit is non-enforceable, meaning that drinking water system operators are not required to adhere to this recommendation.  What's more, research has demonstrated that 70 ppt is far too high to be protective of human health and the environment.
  • Rebecca Esselman, Executive Director of the Huron River Watershed Council, has been keeping close tabs on PFAS in the greater Washtenaw County region.  HRWC has been a party to ongoing litigation against polluters and advocates for both tougher and enforceable limits for PFAS and for measures that force polluters to pay for cleanup and damages.

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— David Fair is the WEMU News Director and host of Morning Edition on WEMU.  You can contact David at 734.487.3363, on twitter @DavidFairWEMU, or email him at dfair@emich.edu