Michigan PFAS Testing: Good Start but Many Still at Risk

Guest Blog by Alex Franco, MPH

Late last week, the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team (MPART) released their final report from 2018’s statewide sampling of water supplies for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). While MPART announced that approximately 90 percent of water supplies had no PFAS detections, results show that many communities are still exposed to levels that can lead to serious health effects.

The EPA Lifetime Health Advisory of 70 parts per trillion (ppt) for just two PFAS chemicals, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perflurooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS), individually or combined was exceeded in two water systems: the city of Parchment and Robinson Elementary School. The executive director of MPART states that, “This first-in-the-nation study of all public water systems in the state resulted in 3,500 people in Parchment and Robinson Township being protected from high levels of previously unknown PFAS contamination in their drinking water last year.” This is absolutely true, and we commend Michigan for performing the most comprehensive testing in the nation. However, the EPA health advisory, set in 2016, is outdated and has been found by many, including Michigan’s PFAS Science Advisory Panel and NRDC, to not be health protective.

Several states, including Michigan, have proposed or adopted stricter standards or guidelines for drinking water and groundwater. In June, the Michigan Science Advisory Workgroup proposed their own health-based values:

  • 6 ppt for PFNA
  • 8 ppt for PFOA
  • 16 ppt for PFOS
  • 51 ppt for PFHxS
  • 370 ppt for GenX (not tested for in the 2018 survey)
  • 420 ppt for PFBS
  • 400,000 ppt for PFHxA

The Michigan Science Advisory Workgroup’s recommendation contains some of the most health-protective values for PFAS proposed in the nation, yet they could go further. However, at the very least Michigan should now be comparing their PFAS testing result against these newly proposed health-based values, not the outdated EPA health advisory. 

NRDC’s analysis of the data finds 43 unique MPART samples of drinking water, predominately for PFOA and PFOS, are much higher than the Michigan Science Advisory Workgroup’s proposed health-based values. These samples were found across 10 Michigan counties and detected in 16 water systems. Based on these samples alone, over 11,000 people in Michigan are exposed to PFAS compounds higher than workgroup’s proposed levels. Almost 1.5 million people are exposed to PFAS chemicals higher than NRDC’s recommended drinking water standard of 2 ppt for PFOA, PFOS, PFNA, and PFHxS combined (our recommended standard for GenX is 5 ppt, however, Michigan currently does not have data on GenX occurrence in the state). MPART should consider these additional water systems at risk as well and begin to address their contamination immediately.

This map shows the highest total PFAS concentration that was sampled in a public water system in that county. Green dots represent PFAS contamination sites currently under investigation by MDEQ.

PFAS chemicals have been used for decades to provide non-stick, stain- and water-resistant properties to products such as carpet, furniture, cookware, and food packaging. They are also used in fire-fighting foams and industrially as surfactants, emulsifiers, and coatings. Although the class is broad, they are related in their extreme persistence and mobility in our environment and potential to cause health harm. They are often referred to as “forever chemicals” because they don’t breakdown. Unfortunately, they have been linked to many harmful health effects, including cancer, immune system disruption, liver damage, hormone disruption, low birth weight, and reproductive harm, some of which can occur at extremely low doses.

Mounting evidence linking PFAS to more sensitive health effects has led to scientists and health professionals to adopt lower and lower thresholds. We applaud Michigan and MPART for performing the nation’s most comprehensive PFAS testing in drinking water. However, we urge Michigan to continue in its leadership on PFAS, and act preemptively toward addressing the many thousands more Michigan residents still at risk.

About the Authors

Anna Reade

Staff Scientist, Healthy People & Thriving Communities program
Blog Post

Michigan needs to move beyond individual chemical-by-chemical assessment and regulation in order to properly address the unique contamination crisis presented by PFAS—a dangerous class of 'forever' chemcials.

Blog Post

Today the Natural Resources Defense Council filed an extensive scientific report making a detailed case for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) to establish strict drinking water standards for five chemicals within the PFAS class.

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