Bold Protections Against Toxic Forever Chemicals in Michigan’s Tap Water

The state has joined the ranks of states that are leading the way in protecting public drinking water from PFAS.

Water samples for PFAS testing collected from the Portage Creek in the Kalamazoo River watershed

All photographs by Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy

Two years ago, most Michiganders had never heard of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, but that changed almost overnight as we discovered that the state was at the center of yet another high-profile water crisis.

In 2012, a state employee had alerted government officials to the pending PFAS crisis, but his report was stifled for years until he finally went public in 2017. Called “forever chemicals,” PFAS do not break down readily in the environment, can build up in our bodies, and can lead to serious health risks like immune system dysfunction, cancer of the kidneys and testicles, liver damage, and harm to developing fetuses, infants, and children, often at extremely low levels of exposure. Having recently endured the battle for safe drinking water in Flint, residents of Michigan were stunned to learn that state officials had once again ignored the warnings about toxics in our water. 

Michigan made national headlines over the past two years as the extent of PFAS in communities throughout the state was exposed. During this time, Michigan residents have been inundated with news about the state’s extensive PFAS contamination, including coverage of high-profile cases linked to the former Wolverine Tannery in Rockford, Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Oscoda, and former paper mills and other possible sites in Parchment.

PFAS foam in Van Ettan Lake in Oscoda, Michigan, near the former Wurthsmith Air Force Base

On August 3, 2020, Michigan will join the ranks of leading states protecting public drinking water from PFAS. With the completion of its yearlong rulemaking process, Michigan is now regulating seven PFAS chemicals—which is more than any other state—and two of the standards are the nation’s most health protective. 

Governor Gretchen Whitmer deserves tremendous credit for taking steps to protect Michigan’s drinking water from these toxic forever chemicals, which have been found in the drinking water of more than 1.9 million Michigan residents.

Thousands of PFAS chemicals have been documented across multiple industries, and the list is growing. PFAS are used industrially, in firefighting foams, and in consumer products like nonstick cookware, grease-proof food packaging, cosmetics, and in stain- and water-resistant clothing, carpets, and furniture. Virtually every one of us is walking around with these chemicals in our bodies.

Thank Gov. Whitmer for helping protect Michigan’s drinking water from PFAS

Scientists and public health experts around the world have expressed concern about the continued and increasing production and release of the entire group of PFAS chemicals. Addressing one or even seven at a time cannot fully protect public health from these thousands of toxic chemical cousins. Once the government cracks down on a few of them, there are countless more of these chemicals waiting like shark teeth to replace them, so we need to regulate them as a class.

In April 2019, Governor Whitmer announced that the state would establish what are known as Maximum Contaminant Levels for PFAS after NRDC petitioned the state to set drinking water standards based on NRDC’s Michigan PFAS 2019 Scientific Report

NRDC weighed in on Michigan’s proposed rules prior to their release for public comment, and we urged state officials to issue stronger protections. During the public comment period, NRDC staff and supporters joined thousands of other Michiganders in submitting comments and/or attending public hearings urging the state to adopt stronger protections based on NRDC’s scientific report and subsequent scientific review. 

A contractor collecting water samples for PFAS testing from the basement of a residential property in Michigan

Although these final standards are an important positive step, NRDC’s review of the science demonstrates that state regulators should have gone further to protect public health from PFAS by strengthening the limits for several of the individual PFAS chemicals; establishing a combined limit for the sum of the seven individual PFAS chemicals Michigan chose to regulate as state testing shows they are found in mixtures; and setting a limit for the total amount of all PFAS chemicals allowed in drinking water.

NRDC will continue working to ensure all people are protected from these toxic forever chemicals. Unfortunately, as my colleague Erik Olson has pointed out, we cannot count on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to adopt strict standards to protect the public from PFAS. So the vacuum must be filled by states like Michigan and local officials until Congress acts to require the EPA to set strict standards for the class of PFAS that are protective of vulnerable populations like pregnant mothers, babies, and young children.

Protect People From Toxic PFAS Chemicals

About the Authors

Cyndi Roper

Michigan Senior Policy Advocate, Safe Water Initiative, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program

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