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Issues of the Environment: Ann Arbor-based Ecology Center applies new methodology to detecting spread of toxic chemicals

Dr. Gillian Zaharias Miller
The Ecology Center
Dr. Gillian Zaharias Miller


  • The Ecology Center has come up with several innovative ways to monitor and test for contaminants in a practical and less cumbersome manner than by traditional means.
  • The government, non-profit, and private sectors are heavily invested in addressing the question of how much and what kind of toxic chemicals are found in consumer products, which are increasingly being tied to adverse health impacts–from disruption of hormones, cancers, impaired brain development and more.  For product makers, retailers, NGOs, and government agencies from large-scale testing of products, testing merchandise and components for hazardous chemicals has been prohibitively expensive and time intensive. Gillian Z. Miller, Jeff Gearhart, and colleagues from the Healthy Stuff Lab at the Ecology Center have developed testing methods to help with this conundrum. Using an infrared analyzer, they can rapidly test a wide variety of consumer products for hormone-disrupting chemicals whilst minimizing chemical and material waste. (Source: https://www.ecocenter.org/healthy-stuff-lab-develops-rapid-screening-methods-detecting-chemicals-concern)
  • In addition to this new testing method, the Ecology Center has a couple of community-based monitoring programs that are helping to pinpoint sources of PFAS and other toxins. To better understand how PFAS move through the environment and determine how the chemicals show up in tissues of fish caught and consumed by angler, they partnered with local anglers, organizations working to restore river health, and other community partners to launch an investigation into the presence of PFAS in fish caught from the Rouge and Huron rivers in southeast Michigan. For this study, local anglers helped identify which fish to catch, how many, and from where in the river. The anglers suggested largemouth bass, blue gill, channel catfish, and brown trout from the Rouge River because they are the most likely to be consumed by community members. In the Huron River, they selected walleye, carp, catfish, pumpkinseed, and black crappie.  (Source: *directly quoted* https://www.ecocenter.org/our-work/community-based-science/fishing-pfas-rouge-and-huron-rivers)
  • Michigan is in the top five states for diseases linked to air quality, racking up $1.5 billion per year in excess health care costs, with southeast Michigan having some of the most polluted air. Community-based monitoring is being conducted by the Ecology Center at locations in Washtenaw and Wayne counties through a series of monitoring sensors that detect air pollutants. A couple of years ago, schools in Detroit piloted the program that tests for particulate matter levels on both indoor and outdoor monitors. This allows students to analyze differences between indoor and outdoor PM levels. Levels of PM in our listening area can be viewed on a map here. 


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU. And, today, we're going to talk about research advancements in understanding how PFAS and other toxins spread through the environment, impacting our fish and, potentially and ultimately, human health. I'm David Fair, and welcome to this week's edition of Issues of the Environment. The Ann Arbor-based Ecology Center has developed a new testing method, which can rapidly test a wide variety of consumer products for hormone disrupting chemicals, while, at the same time, minimizing chemical and material waste. And the Ecology Center has also enlisted fishermen and anglers to help in a community-driven monitoring program. Our guest this morning is going to help us understand all of this a little better. Dr. Gillian Zaharias Miller, thank you so much for making time for us today.

Dr. Gillian Zaharias Miller: Thanks for having me.

David Fair: Now, Dr. Miller is senior scientist at the Ecology Center. And, at what point did you collectively come to the determination that the test processes were insufficient?

Dr. Gillian Zaharias Miller: The new paper that you mentioned, that we have just published, it grew out of actually several years of consumer product studies where we were focusing on bisphenols, plasticizers, and flame retardants, all different industrial chemical classes that are very ubiquitous and tend to be in everybody's bodies. We needed a more inexpensive way to test for those chemicals, so we used a couple of relatively inexpensive instruments,--inexpensive in a laboratory sense. And the paper that we wrote aggregated a set of those smaller studies that we've done over several years. We did testing of things like home decorations and flooring and food packaging, child car seats--like, it really runs a wide range of items--and tested for those different classes of chemicals using an infrared analyzer. And it's not a new type of instrument, and it's not brand new to use it for that type of testing necessarily. But we took it pretty far, and we spent a lot of time improving and optimizing the methods that we used in order to test those common everyday items quickly. So, we decided we had enough information to kind of aggregate it, evaluate the methods we were using, how well did they actually work, and also describe the methods for any other researchers who want to do similar kinds of testing. So, we published that paper in the Journal of Environmental Health because the target audience of that journal is environmental health researchers, people in government agencies, etc.

David Fair: So, in using these infrared analyzers, apparently some of which were available in one form or another, what did you start learning that perhaps we didn't know as in detail before? I mean, you mentioned these chemicals are ubiquitous. They are in just about everything. And we get to walk through life largely ignorant of the fact of what we're exposing ourselves to.

Dr. Gillian Zaharias Miller: Right. Well, there are a lot of different things I could choose to highlight because we tested so many different types of things. But one thing that we studied using this technique that I'm not sure that anybody else has been doing is children's car seats. We looked at children's car seats for primarily flame retardant chemicals over many years. And so, we have so much data that we're able to see the changes. We're able to see what companies were doing in response to either regulation or pressure from, you know, advocacy against certain chemicals, even if they weren't regulated. So, we saw a huge change over the years, also as the result of our own direct advocacy as an organization and saw a huge change in the types of flame retardant chemicals used to the point that now we have a large number of children's car seats being sold without flame retardants and, in fact, making that a marketing claim. And another item that's not exactly a consumer product is store receipts. We use this infrared analyzer to very rapidly test a large number of receipts. We're doing that now. And we also did it a few years ago looking at the changes. And that's primarily to look for bisphenols. Other researchers have looked at bisphenols in receipts, but usually don't use this technique, even though, actually, we learned it's a very good technique and quite easy to do for receipts. We learned that the levels of BPS and BPA--those are the chemicals of concern in many receipts--are at very high levels in receipts. And the research literature then told us that the people who handle receipts a lot are highly exposed. And that is very true for people who actually work at a cash register where the levels in their blood of these chemicals will go up greatly after a shift.

David Fair: 89 one WEMU's Issues of the Environment conversation with Ecology Center senior scientist Dr. Gillian Zaharias Miller continues. Now, I had mentioned at the outset that there is a community-driven monitoring program. You're utilizing members of the community who utilize our natural resources in the Huron River and the Rouge River to better understand how pervasive the problem is in those settings. What have we learned to this point?

Dr. Gillian Zaharias Miller: Yeah, I'm glad you brought that up, because this has been a really interesting and kind of exciting undertaking over the last couple of years to partner with people in southeast Michigan who fish the Huron River watersheds and the Rouge River watershed, who eat the fish that they catch. We were able to gather a large number of community advisors--people who fish. We worked with Friends of the Rouge and Huron River Watershed Council. I had a number of meetings with people to learn where did they fish? What did they like to eat? What are their concerns? What do you know about PFAS? And if we test fish for PFAS, what should we do with that information? And so, we have undertaken a study of PFAS in local fish. It kind of augments and expands upon the testing that the state of Michigan has done because they do test fish periodically. We went a little further. We dissected some of the fish that we caught and separated out different organs in order to look at where PFAS actually end up in fish. The state tends to test the filet or the mussel because that's what people eat. But we wanted to also highlight a broader ecosystem impact frame and point out that, while the whole fish may be accumulating PFAS, lots of wildlife eat fish. And we haven't published this yet. This is coming. All the data will be public. It's just not quite ready yet. We have a couple of different academic labs that we're working with for some detailed testing of the PFAS in the fish. But we have found that it's definitely not, you know, equally distributed PFAS pollution throughout the fish. There tends to be an accumulation in the livers. Also fish that had eggs. The eggs tend to be quite high. So, we don't know all the implications of those findings yet, but we are in process working on that.

David Fair: So, unfortunately, our time together is running short. But I do want to tackle something you touched on earlier. You mentioned the significant changes that have been made in the manufacturing of children's car seats and the difference that can make long-term. We are pretty much reactionary. We know that most of these chemicals have alternatives, and that real change is going to have to come at that manufacturing end. What further efforts are you going to be doing through healthy stuff dot org and the Ecology Center in putting that component of the problem at the fore?

Dr. Gillian Zaharias Miller: Yeah, that's a great question because the prevention of this kind of contamination and pollution is exactly what we're always trying to bring the conversation back to. Yes, we're testing, you know, fish, and we're testing air quality in Detroit. We didn't talk about that. We're testing products. But we're using the results of all these studies to push for regulations both at government level and at corporate level to prevent the use of these chemicals.

David Fair: And are you getting by into a satisfactory level? I mean, sometimes change is slow. We understand that.

Dr. Gillian Zaharias Miller: Right.

David Fair: But are people willing to change? Are companies willing to change?

Dr. Gillian Zaharias Miller: In many cases, yes. I mean, the child car seat example is a good one. And, of course, that industry....it's very important for them to be very safe for children. But the PFAS issue is especially difficult because there's so many sources of PFAS. But there's definitely been a huge increase in awareness of many of the sources. And, to be clear, the PFAS chemicals that we're finding in fish and in water, you know, a lot of it is one compound that comes from firefighting foam and from chrome-plating operations. So, we have started a petition about eliminating the use of hexavalent chromium in chrome plating, because that requires the use of PFAS in the process. And, yes, it is slow to build, but we are always, always focused on the prevention side, because that's really ultimately the only way to stop this from being a continuing cycle.

David Fair: So, if you and I sit down and have a conversation at this time next year, how much further along do you anticipate being in our understanding of how best to deal with these issues and in putting forth the solutions?

Dr. Gillian Zaharias Miller: Well, that is a great question, and I hope with the new Legislature in Michigan that we will have maybe some fairly quick movement on strengthening PFAS-related regulations, both possibly tightening water threshold levels and possibly some manufacturing-related regulation that would make it more difficult to use these chemicals or to use them in a polluting way. And with regards to the receipts that we briefly mentioned earlier, there are drop-in replacements for those unfortunate chemicals that are in many purchase receipts. And there is a lot of movement on that, especially because it's not that difficult for companies to make those changes. So, I hope to see actual movement on that, not through legislation, but through just corporate policies. And we have, fortunately, some great partners across the country working with us on that.

David Fair: Well, I appreciate you taking the time and sharing the information today, and I'd like to have that conversation a year from now and see where we are.

Dr. Gillian Zaharias Miller: Let's do that. I appreciate it.

David Fair: That is Dr. Gillian Zaharias Miller. She is senior scientist at the Ann Arbor-based Ecology Center and our guest on Issues of the Environment. For more information on today's topic and the work being done at The Ecology Center and its Healthy Stuff lab, visit our web page at WEMU dot org. Issues of the Environment is produced in partnership with the Office of the Washtenaw County Water Resources Commissioner, and we bring it to you every Wednesday. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM Ypsilanti.

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Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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