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Issues of the Environment: The impact of 'forever chemicals' on Michigan's fish and wildlife

Jennifer Hill
Jennifer Hill
Jennifer Hill


  • Deer firearm hunting season in Washtenaw County begins November 15th and runs until November 30th. According to the Michigan DNR, deer populations have been steadily increasing in Michigan, while the number of hunters has declined. According to the Michigan DNR Deer Harvest Survey for 2021, about 7800 hunters were licensed and about 5,000 deer were harvested in Washtenaw County. The estimated population density of deer in the county is at least 28 per square mile. (Source: https://www.michigan.gov/dnr/-/media/Project/Websites/dnr/Documents/WLD/Reports/2021deerharvestreport.pdf?rev=fcb79604f8cb430aa59054cc77766067; https://localinannarbor.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/washtenaw-deer-population-study_2014.pdf)
  • Wildlife agencies in the U.S. are finding elevated levels of a class of toxic chemicals in game animals such as deer — and that's prompting health advisories in some places where hunting and fishing are ways of life and key pieces of the economy. Authorities have detected the high levels of PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, in deer in several states, including Michigan, where legions of hunters seek to bag a buck every fall. Sometimes called “forever chemicals” for their persistence in the environment, PFAS are industrial compounds used in numerous products, such as nonstick cookware and clothing. It should also be noted that a small study of 20 deer harvested from the Huron River watershed detected no PFAS in the meat, despite PFAS being prevalent in fish from the Huron River. The DNR considers the deer in the region safe for human consumption, while the “do not eat fish” advisory remains in effect. (Source: *directly quoted* https://www.usnews.com/news/us/articles/2022-10-05/forever-chemicals-in-deer-fish-challenge-hunters-tourism; https://www.michigan.gov/pfasresponse/fishandwildlife/deer)
  • The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency launched an effort last year to limit pollution from the chemicals, which are linked to health problems including cancer and low birth weight. A recently proposed rule designating PFOA and PFOS (two very common PFAS compounds) as hazardous substances under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) is significant in the fight to protect people and wildlife from dangerous PFAS chemicals. Earlier this summer, the EPA released updated lifetime health advisories for several PFAS chemicals, including PFOA and PFOS, setting them at .004 parts per trillion (ppt) and .02 ppt respectively. (Source: *directly quoted* https://www.nwf.org/Latest-News/Press-Releases/2022/8-26-22-EPA-PFAS-Rule)
  • But discovery of the chemicals in wild animals hunted for sport and food represents a new challenge that some states have started to confront by issuing “do not eat” advisories for deer and fish and expanding testing for PFAS in them. Michigan was the first state to assess PFAS in deer, said Tammy Newcomb, senior executive assistant director for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. The state issued its first “do not eat" advisory in 2018 for deer taken in and near Oscoda Township. Michigan has since issued an advisory against eating organs, such as liver and kidneys, from deer, fish or any other wild game anywhere in the state. It has also studied waterfowl throughout the state in areas of PFAS surface water contamination. (Source: *directly quoted* https://www.usnews.com/news/us/articles/2022-10-05/forever-chemicals-in-deer-fish-challenge-hunters-tourism)
  • “The fact there is an additional threat to the wildlife — the game that people are going out to hunt and fish — is a threat to those industries, and how people think about hunting and fishing,” said Jennifer Hill, associate director of the Great Lakes Regional Center for the National Wildlife Federation. (Source: *directly quoted* https://www.usnews.com/news/us/articles/2022-10-05/forever-chemicals-in-deer-fish-challenge-hunters-tourism)


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and welcome to another edition of Issues of the Environment. I'm David Fair. And for many, we are in the favorite time of year: deer hunting season. The firearm deer hunting season began yesterday, November 15th, and there are a multitude of folks who are out in the Michigan woods, including right here in Washtenaw County. In fact, last year, there were about 7800 licensed firearm deer hunters in Washtenaw County alone. And when the season ended, about 5000 deer had been harvested. There is an emerging threat to these animals and to hunting in general. That is PFAS, those toxic forever chemicals. Here to help us better understand what we're dealing with as Jennifer Hill. Jennifer is the associate director for the National Wildlife Federation Great Lakes Regional Center. And thank you for carving out some time for us today.

Jennifer Hill: Thanks for having me.

David Fair: We know what a significant issue PFAS is around here. There's a longstanding "do not eat fish" advisory for the Huron River. We also know Michigan is one of the states where elevated levels of PFAS have already showed up in the deer population. You have a kind of handle on how significant the problem is?

Jennifer Hill: Sure. So, we know that, you know, the more states look for PFAS contamination, the more they're funding in our water and our soil and our fish and our wildlife, as you were just talking about. And animals and people, you know, are dependent on the same land and water. And so, the fact that PFAS is being found in deer in some places in Michigan is certainly concerning. There's a lot of cutting edge research that is being done here in the Great Lakes region by Michigan State University, Wayne State University, and many others. But we honestly don't have a lot of answers to the questions that we need to have to really understand how PFAS are impacting fish and wildlife and making their way up the food chain.

David Fair: As I understand it, in the Huron River Watershed, there was a small sampling of about 20 harvested deer that turned up no PFAS in the meat, which means, for now, there's no local consumption advisory on that. Is that correct?

Jennifer Hill: That's correct, yes. So, there is a current white-tailed deer consumption advisory for PFAS specifically within a three-mile radius of the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base, which is in Oscoda, Michigan, so, up in northeastern Michigan. That is a location where PFAS contamination has not been sufficiently cleaned up. And, you know, the state has sampled there several times and has been able to reduce that consumption advisory. Originally, it was that a five-square mile radius. And just last year, they've brought it down to a three-square mile radius.

David Fair: WEMU's Issues of the Environment continues. And today, we're talking about PFAS and deer hunting with Jennifer Hill from the National Wildlife Federation Great Lakes Regional Center. Because of the pervasive nature of PFAS, the more we learn, the more we find out we're exposed. Are there certain parts of deer and other wildlife that hunters capture that should not be harvested or eaten?

Jennifer Hill: Yes. So, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services recommends that no deer organs be eaten from anywhere in the state of Michigan, and that is because of many toxic chemicals. But PFAS is one of the specific concerns around organs.

David Fair: The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences issued a report that said over 90% of humans have some level of PFAS in their blood. Again, these are toxic and potentially carcinogenic chemicals beyond human consumption. How serious could the threat be to deer and other wildlife in our woodlands because of previous contamination?

Jennifer Hill: Well, very significant, I think. You know, because these chemicals are called forever chemicals, they're persistent. They're toxic. We know that they're contaminating our waterways, our land, our wildlife, and that they are certainly posing significant health impacts to people. So, one of the key takeaways that we know about in wildlife is seeing reduced reproductive success in several species. And, as I said, there's much more research being done here in the Great Lakes region. There's also been scientific research that's shown that increased levels of PFAS contamination in a certain kind of bird--treefalls specifically here in the Great Lakes region--that we're living within close proximity to a known contamination site, had higher levels of PFAS. So, you know, not the same species, of course, as a deer, but showing a correlation between a proximity to a contaminated sites and PFAS levels in animals. So, it's very concerning and something that hunters need to be educated on, to understand where consumption advisories exist in the states, that when they're going out in the field, they're understanding that both for wildlife and for fish, since, as you mentioned, there are fish advisories for PFAS across Michigan.

David Fair: How damaging could that be to the economy? I mean, I imagine that hunting and fishing tourism could be dramatically impacted if this gets too far out of hand.

Jennifer Hill: Well, we really need to understand how these forever chemicals are impacting wildlife better. There's been some research that's been done on that, and the Great Lakes region is leading in that area. But there needs to be more funding from federal and state agencies to really understand, to do the research and the monitoring--the scientific monitoring--that's needed to really understand how PFAS chemicals are impacting wildlife and game species in order to help hunters and anglers be better prepared when they go out in the field. And, ultimately, we also need to be reducing the amount of these dangerous chemicals that are going into our water and our food supply. So, unfortunately, PFAS are in so many consumer products, they're in so many different things that we interact with as humans. And that's the same for wildlife.

David Fair: We just started down the path I wanted to go. Our conversation with Natural Wildlife Federation's Jennifer Hill continues on 89 one WEMU's Issues of the Environment. How is your organization and involved governmental entities beginning to think about addressing the problem and offering greater protections beyond just reduction of the production of PFAS chemicals?

Jennifer Hill: So, something that we've been really following closely is the federal government has recently put out a PFAS roadmap, which includes many critical components to reducing PFAS contamination in society. That includes setting a federal drinking water standard for PFAS, which does not currently exist. We do have drinking water standards here in the state of Michigan, but we do not have them federally. It also includes phasing PFAS out of products, for example, like you were just talking about, and doing all sorts of PFAS work across the federal government to ensure that people have safe, clean drinking water to consume. But there are critical pieces that are also missing in that plan. And one of those is, you know, holding the Department of Defense, which is a major source of PFAS pollution from their use in the past of PFAS-laden firefighting foam, accountable for cleaning up contaminated military sites. And I bring that up because, as I was just talking about, the only white-tailed deer consumption advisory for us in the state of Michigan right now is--

David Fair: Near Oscoda.

Jennifer Hill: Former Wurtsmith Air Force Base. Yes. Where the Department of Defense is the accountable party for that people's pollution. And that previous pollution came from the use of previously in firefighting foam. So, the clean-up there has been very slow. It's still hasn't really even started in some ways. There have been a few intermediary actions that have happened. But we're on almost into year 13, and there's still not a comprehensive plan that's being acted upon to sufficiently clean up that previous contamination. And we're seeing the impacts of that in consumption advisories. And, you know, Clark's Marsh, which is just adjacent to the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base, is where there's not only the venison advisory we've been talking about today, there's also, of course, a fish advisory. And there is an advisory there for aquatic and semi-aquatic animals that live in Clark's Marsh. So, that means everything from, you know, the turtles to otters to muskrats, there is a consumption advisory for all of those animals, which really shows how pervasive these forever chemicals can be and are impacting what we would think of, if you look at Clark's Marsh, if you go out there, it looks like a pristine wildlife habitat. But, unfortunately, because of these forever chemicals, it's not. And it's critical that we hold accountable the folks that should have the authority to clean that up and that they need to do so in a swift manner for, of course, for the people of Oscoda who have suffered much too long with previous exposure and contamination and also for the wildlife and fish that live there.

David Fair: Obviously, the more we study, the more we learn, then the better we can address the problem. Still, it seems with what we don't know, the problem is likely to get worse before it gets better. Fair assessment?

Jennifer Hill: I think that we're going to learn that the problem is worse. I think that, yes, the problem is it feels very daunting, I think, when you think about PFAS contamination. I also think that there is a lot on the horizon that's very hopeful. So, the fact that the federal government has a plan in place that they are acting on, the fact that there are federal drinking water standards that are being going through the rulemaking process right now, is very hopeful to me because, of course, when you think about something like drinking water, that, of course, is going to be a great improvement for people. And also, when you think about wildlife, wildlife are drinking surface water. So, if we can clean up our drinking water from PFAS chemicals, that's going to benefit wildlife as well. So, it is a daunting problem. And there is also some hope on the horizon, I think, for pieces that are coming down from the federal and the state government to do more about this. And people are able to become more and more educated, so that they can understand how PFAS are impacting their daily lives and how they can avoid using products or being in situations where they're being exposed to PFAS chemicals.

David Fair: Well, I think ending on a note and a measure of hope is a good place to end. So, thank you so much for your time and for the information today, Jennifer.

Jennifer Hill: Thank you.

David Fair: That is Jennifer Hill, associate director for the Natural Wildlife Federation Great Lakes Regional Center and our guest on Issues of the Environment. Issues of the Environment is produced in partnership with the office of the Washtenaw County Water Resources Commissioner. And you hear it every Wednesday. I'm David Fair, and this is 89 one WEMU FM and HD one Ypsilanti.

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