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Issues of the Environment: A preview of the 2024 National PFAS Conference in Ann Arbor

Robert Kerr, Ann Arbor community leader for the Great Lakes PFAS Action Network.
RKERR
Robert Kerr, Ann Arbor community leader for the Great Lakes PFAS Action Network.

Overview

  • June 10th-12th, Ann Arbor will host the 2024 National PFAS Conference, a conference series that is uniquely designed to exchange information, provide support to PFAS-affected communities, and facilitate engagement across diverse sectors involved with PFAS to accelerate the protection of health and the environment. This is the 4th National Conference. The first conference was in 2017 in Wilmington, North Carolina and is a biannual event. The conference gathers impacted community members, scientists and political decision makers together from all over the country to collaborate and exchange ideas and advances in science. This year, the conference is sponsored by Michigan State University and hosted on the campus of University of Michigan by the SEAS program
  • PFAS is a growing concern nationally and locally. According to a 2023 study by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), at least 45% of tap water in the United States contains per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS), also known as "forever chemicals". The study found similar concentrations of PFAS in public and private wells, with the highest concentrations in the Great Plains, Great Lakes, Eastern Seaboard, and Central/Southern California.
  • According to the Huron River Watershed Council, more than 90% of Michigan drinking water supplies tested in Michigan do not contain detectable levels of PFAS, and in the Huron River watershed, the City of Ann Arbor is the only affected municipal drinking water system. The city has been proactive and aggressive in its treatment for PFAS, and has effectively reduced total PFAS contamination to very low levels. (below the EPA threshold) No specific PFAS chemical has exceeded the drinking water standards established in August of 2020. (Source: *directly quoted* https://www.hrwc.org/our-watershed/threats/pfas-and-the-huron-river/)
  • Robert Kerr, Co-Chair 2024 National PFAS Conference and Community Leader - Great Lakes PFAS Action Network, says that it is imperative to organize to stop the flow. PFAS must be removed from all uses to stop the source of contamination of our air, soils and water. Robert offered some priorities, including:   
    • All versions of PFAS (there are over 15,000) must be regulated as a group and not individual. We regulate only eight versions in the state of Michigan. The EPA has announced new MCL standards.  Insisting on insurance companies allow for PFAS blood testing.  This will allow patients and their physicians to be on the alert for typical PFAS health effects.
    • Hold polluters accountable for cleanup and cleanup costs through legislation. “If you make a mess, you clean it up." Michigan has proposed bills for all polluters to pay.
    • Provide more funding to contain and cleanup sites all over the country.

Transcription

David Fair: Beginning next week, Ann Arbor will serve as home to the 2024 National PFAS Conference. The so-called forever chemicals have played havoc with waterways across our state and country and here locally. And there is so much more to learn. I'm David Fair, and welcome to Issues of the Environment. The PFAS conference will run from Monday, June 10th through Wednesday, June 12th. It will bring scientists, elected officials, environmental activists and more to discuss what we know, what more we need to know, and how we are collectively going to deal with the PFAS problem. This event is sponsored by Michigan State University and being hosted by the University of Michigan's School of Environment and Sustainability. Our guest today is co-chair of the conference. Robert Kerr is steeped in this work as Ann Arbor community leader with the Great Lakes PFAS Action Network. And thank you for making time for us today, Robert! I appreciate it!

Robert Kerr: Thank you, David! I appreciate you having us on, and we're very excited about the conference!

David Fair: Well, this is a conference that is typically held every other year. Was Ann Arbor chosen this time around because of the impacts that PFAS have had on the Huron River?

Robert Kerr: Yes. What we like to do is to pick impacted communities to bring the awareness to the rest of the conference goers. In Ann Arbor, we lobbied quite hard to get the conference here. We were successful at doing that, and we're really, really excited to be able to highlight what our issues are here in Ann Arbor.

David Fair: Well, let's talk a little bit about that. Back in 2018, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services issued a "Do Not Eat Fish" advisory for the entirety of the Huron River and connected waterways. It's not expected that advisory is going to be lifted anytime soon. So, how many other watersheds in Michigan are dealing with something similar?

Robert Kerr: Oh my gosh! Well, as you know, there's 11,000 sites. They're not all waterways, of course, but the state has done a lot of investigation. And so, the waterways--it ends up generally into our drinking water and into the water.

David Fair: Right.

David Fair: And it's quite a problem here in the state of Michigan.

David Fair: When it comes to municipal drinking water supplies, I do want to make clear that we are generally safe in Ann Arbor. PFAs has been detected in the drinking water supply, but it's been treated. It is marked as safe to drink. But there are also a lot of wells in Washtenaw County and even more in some outstate areas. What do we know about PFAs in well water?

Robert Kerr: Well, it's interesting because we know very little about it because there's been testing by the state, but it's been hard to do that because some individuals either don't know about PFAS or don't want their wells to be tested. So, there's no real enforcement to be able to do that. So, it's complicated.

David Fair: We're talking with Robert Kerr on WEMU's Issues of the Environment. He is community leader with the Great Lakes PFAS Action Network and co-chair of the 2024 National PFAS Conference, which will take place at the Michigan League in Ann Arbor next week. Robert, the federal EPA has been behind the eight ball when it comes to PFAS, but it's finally started to make some progress in very limited ways. What, in your estimation, needs to happen next at the federal level as we deal with this crisis?

Robert Kerr: Well, we are really excited that the EPA has taken notice and really has done a lot for six versions of PFAS. They've acted on that, which is stricter than our PFAS levels here allowed in our drinking water in the state of Michigan.

David Fair: But there are like 15,000 kinds of PFAs.

Robert Kerr: That's correct. There are 15,000. And we're talking about six that the EPA is regulating right now. So, what we're doing now--what we'd like to do--is to be sure the flow of PFAS stops in products. We should not be using it in any products. We're also warning that all PFAS--as you know, there are 15,000--they all be regulated as one group and not individually. That would make a huge difference if the EPA took that on. There are insurance issues with getting people the ability to be able to have them be tested-- blood tested--for PFAS in their blood. And then, the state is working pretty hard right now in holding polluters accountable. If you make a mess, we want you to clean it up and pay for it. We talked about Ann Arbor. Right now, the citizens of Ann Arbor are paying for filtration of our water for the mess that's been made upriver from us. As you know, we pull our water out of the Huron River.

David Fair: And the cost runs into the millions.

Robert Kerr: It runs into the millions, and we're all paying for it. And it really shouldn't be us paying for it. There should be none of it in our water. But if it happens, the polluters should be paying for it.

David Fair: Most people that I talk to, in one form or another, actually support polluter pay legislation at both the state and the federal level. That is a very reactive kind of legislation. Is it equally as important to start holding manufacturers and retailers accountable? I mean, PFOS and PFAS are in so many products and were exposed in so many ways. Wouldn't the biggest change come by getting these chemicals out of most of the products we buy and use?

Robert Kerr: Absolutely! We're really pushing hard to stop the flow. And, really, that's priority in trying to stop this from spreading. And all of us, if you can figure out and find out whether a product has PFAS in it, we should not be buying those products. We should be celebrating the folks that have gone out of their way to keep it out of their products.

David Fair: You know, cost is an underdiscussed part of this problem because, as you mentioned, it's costing millions just to treat the drinking water supply. But there are health impacts that we don't yet know about, both probably short and longer term. And that is going to be a an increasingly burdensome cost to the health care system, to the insurance industry, and then to us as communities and individuals as well. Is that a part of your argument?

Robert Kerr: It is. Right now, one of the things that we're most concerned about is not every physician knows or understands what a patient would present that has PFAS, or even to be looking for that in providing education for the health care system, to be able to to recognize issues that could be compounded by PFAs. It's a really big issue. And, we're advocates for more education to the health care system and also being able to provide funding that could provide testing for folks that think that they may have PFAS issues.

David Fair: And as we talk about funding, funding for the cleanup of the sites that we know are contaminated, we need a whole lot more of that. And we need more cooperation from all levels of government to get there.

Robert Kerr: Absolutely. I have to say that, our state, we are leaders in figuring some of this out. Our congressionals have been really at the forefront in helping to get funding for us and to bring awareness that this is an issue for this state. It's an issue for everybody's state. Everybody needs to be looking for it. But we seem to be one of the leaders in figuring this stuff out as it comes to legislation.

David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU. And you're getting an advanced look at next week's National PFAS Conference that runs Monday through Wednesday in Ann Arbor. We're talking with Robert Kerr, who is co-chair of the conference. We've kind of laid out what the talking points are going to be at this conference. What is the mission of the conference?

Robert Kerr: The mission is really to get impacted community members and scientists together, as well as our decision makers--our policymakers. It's one of the most unusual conferences, we think, because we do have impacted community members. Their voice is heard throughout the whole conference and is weighed equally for our scientists to hear and to listen to what the community is impacted with. It's not just a bunch of scientists sitting around talking about their science. It's a lot about what's happening to real people with this problem.

David Fair: And, hopefully, those who are in attendance at the conference will take that back. When this conference is over, you're going to get back to the daily work you do as the Ann Arbor community leader with the Great Lakes PFAS Action Network. What is on your agenda there for the rest of 2024?

Robert Kerr: Pushing hard on the polluter pay law here in the state of Michigan is very high on my list. Of course, the law covers more than just PFAS. But, PFAS is a really big piece of it. We're pushing very hard to help get that across the finish line and to make polluters pay.

David Fair: There is a lot of industry and lobbyist money that doesn't want to see such legislation passed. How do you combat money with activism voices?

Robert Kerr: David, having clean water is a bipartisan issue. And, in my opinion, everybody wants to drink clean water. I think our way of being able to get people on board with this is really education, spending time in Lansing and also spending time telling people about actually what they're paying for, and so that they understand that it is a big problem and having them all come on board, whether you're Republican or Democrat. It doesn't matter. We need to have clean water. So, it's a big deal.

David Fair: Well, Robert, thank you so much for the time today! And we'll look forward to all that comes from next week's gathering!

Robert Kerr: David, thank you very much! And I look forward to others being at the conference! It's a big deal, and we're really excited about it!

David Fair: That is Robert Kerr. He is Ann Arbor community leader with the Great Lakes PFAS Action Network and co-chair of the National PFAS Conference that runs Monday, June 10th through Wednesday, June 12th, at the Michigan League in Ann Arbor. For more information, stop by our website at wemu.org when you get a minute, and we'll have all you need to get you connected. Issues of the Environment is produced in partnership with the office of the Washtenaw County Water Resources Commissioner. You hear it every Wednesday. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM, Ypsilanti.

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