Tag: DDT

Déjà Vu: PFAS are Latest in Long Line of Failed Chemical Policies

Photo: Rebecca Meuninck, Deputy Director of the Ann Arbor-based Ecology Center

By Dave Dempsey

The discovery of toxic per- or polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in many Michigan locations, the fear and concern these chemicals have stirred, and the difficulty posed to government officials and the public on how to respond feel familiar to those residents 50 and over. As the baseball player Yogi Berra once said, “It’s déjà vu all over again.”

PFAS are just the latest symbols of failed chemical policy in a chain reaching back to World War II. That policy has caused disease and death, ruined landscapes and waters, and cost taxpayers scores of billions of dollars. And still politicians haven’t learned.

A Look Back

A look back at Michigan’s history of dealing with chemical crises illustrates the point:

  • Mercury – When fish from the St. Clair River, Lake St. Clair, and the Detroit River were found to have alarmingly high levels of toxic mercury in 1970, the state had to shut down the Lake St. Clair fishery until it completed an exhaustive effort to trace and control the sources. Although much reduced, mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants and other sources continue.
  • DDT – After the state banned most uses of toxic DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane) in 1969 for its effect on fish, wildlife, and human health, it also had to ban several replacement chemicals in succeeding years.
  • PCBs – In 1971, investigators found surprisingly high levels of toxic PCBs in Michigan water bodies, including the Kalamazoo River. This led to a ban on the chemicals in the mid-1970s.
  • PBB & PBDEs– When toxic PBB, a flame retardant, was accidentally mixed with cattle feed in 1973, government responded slowly and the entire Michigan food chain was affected. Chemical companies replaced PBB with compounds like polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), which were subsequently found to be toxic to fish, wildlife and people and were banned or phased out.

    There are many more examples, the result of a policy that treats chemicals as though they have constitutional rights like people, “innocent until proven guilty.” It also treats them one at a time.

    Whack-a-mole

    “We’re playing chemical whack-a-mole,” says Rebecca Meuninck, Deputy Director of the Ecology Center, based in Ann Arbor. The Ecology Center has been working to develop chemical policy reform for years and has successfully championed initiatives such as Michigan state government’s Green Chemistry program. The program’s objective is to foster use and development of new chemicals and chemical products that reduce or eliminate the use or generation of hazardous substances while producing high quality products through safe and efficient manufacturing methods.

    The price of a piecemeal approach to chemical policy can be measured not just in damage to human health and the environment, but to taxpayer pocketbooks. Between the commencement of state-funded toxic cleanup program in the late 1970s and today — a 40-year period — Michigan citizens have shelled out more than $1.5 billion to handle cleanups of messes created by private parties. Created by everyone from small businesses to corporate giants, these toxic sites have become the public’s problem because many of the businesses involved have gone bankrupt or have chosen to contest their responsibility.

    Solutions?

    What can we do about this problem? We need a new national chemical policy that requires full testing and safety evaluation of chemicals before they are introduced to the market and to our air, water, and bodies. Although this is common sense, chemical manufacturers have successfully resisted these reforms through the political process.

    Meuninck says legislation passed and signed into law by former President Obama in 2016 has the potential to help.  Key provisions include:

    • A mandatory requirement for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to evaluate existing chemicals with clear and enforceable deadlines;
    • Risk-based chemical assessments;
    • Increased public transparency for chemical information; and
    • Consistent source of funding for the EPA to carry out the responsibilities under the new law.

    “These are important changes, but they’re only as good as the EPA that’s supposed to implement them,” Meuninck said.  “Otherwise, it could go horribly wrong.”

    REACH

    A potential model for a new U.S. policy is the European Commission’s 12-year-old REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorization, and Restriction of Chemicals) regulation. REACH shifts the burden of identifying chemical hazards, means of mitigating hazards, and managing risk from government to business.

    Among other things, REACH:

    • Places responsibility on industry to manage the risks from chemicals and to provide safety information on the substances.  Manufacturers and importers are required to gather information on the properties of their chemical substances, and to register the information in a central database.
    • Calls for the progressive substitution of the most dangerous chemicals (referred to as “substances of very high concern”) when suitable alternatives have been identified.

    “One of the main reasons for developing and adopting the REACH Regulation,” the Commission says, “was that a large number of substances have been manufactured and placed on the market in Europe for many years, sometimes in very high amounts, and yet there is insufficient information on the hazards that they pose to human health and the environment. There is a need to fill these information gaps to ensure that industry is able to assess hazards and risks of the substances, and to identify and implement the risk management measures to protect humans and the environment.”

    But the European approach is far from becoming U.S. policy, despite the best efforts of skilled, effective public interest groups like the Ecology Center. It is difficult to say what chemical crisis might prompt needed change here at home. That change is badly needed — without another crisis coming first.

    Dave Dempsey is the Senior Policy Advisor at FLOW

    Michigan’s Latest Emergency Drinking Water Crisis: PFAS, Another History Lesson Ignored Again

    In 1962, with the release of her seminal work, Silent Spring, Rachel Carson sounded a warning to the American public about the perils of persistent pesticide chemicals like DDT to silence the very ecosystems they attempt to tame. Carson’s story underscored the interconnectedness of all living things and systems and the need to understand the full life cycle of biocides and other chemicals in order to truly protect human health and the environment.

    Despite Carson’s work and subsequent congressional toxic chemical legislation, every year, chemical manufacturers release some 10,000 untested chemicals into the environment in the United States.[1] How can this be?

    Several weeks ago, I met a professor of environmental toxicology and spoke with him at length about Michigan’s latest emergency drinking water crisis involving a different chemical of concern: per- and polyflouroalkyl substances (PFAS). PFAS are an emerging contaminant of concern because of their widespread use and persistence in the environment, having been commonly used in firefighting foam, water resistant fabrics, nonstick surfaces, stain guards and other commercial and industrial applications. According to recent reporting, there are an estimated 11,000 sites with PFAS contamination affecting a potential 1.5 million citizens in Michigan.[2]

    This professor boiled down the problem right back to Rachel Carson’s work, explaining that DDT was in the chlorine family. Once the public and policymakers raised the alarm bells about this chemical family in the 1960s, the chemists simply moved over to the next element – fluorine – and started developing a host of water repellent compounds for commercial and residential use without understanding the public health and environmental impacts once again.

    Michiganders now are demanding answers again from their state government that has failed to warn and protect its citizens. Now that the public is clamoring for action, state and federal agencies are finding PFAS in many places. The public water supply of the City of Parchment was found to be contaminated at unacceptable levels, and customers were warned not to use it temporarily. Private well owners near a Wolverine Worldwide shoe manufacturing facility in Kent County have had to seek alternate water supplies. PFAS have also shown up in some school drinking water supplies and in surface waters near Wurtsmith Air Force base.

    As early as 2012, DEQ scientists warned administrators about PFAS and their persistence in the environment, and yet, the department failed to take any action putting people and the environment first.

    Sadly, this is not Michigan’s first chemical rodeo show. Yet, our state leaders and agencies continue to follow the same playbook: identify the toxic chemical, tell people not to drink the water, scrape up some funding to clean up some contamination sites, and then finally fund the science to determine what a “safe” level is. The State of Michigan needs to do all these things for PFAS, but we need to do a lot, lot more.

    First, the PFAS fiasco is a failure of state government to heed the constitutional mandate to protect public health — the executive and legislative branches both. As in the case of Flint’s lead poisoning, experts warned state officials of a threat, and the officials dismissed it. Moreover, over 20 years ago in 1995, the legislature exposed the public to persistent PFAS threats by weakening liability and increasing the allowable cancer risk.

    Liz Kirkwood, Executive Director

    Second, the PFAS fiasco is a canary in the policy coal mine. It’s a warning and a reminder that our economy and environment are engulfed in a bath of chemicals, many of whose risks are unknown. The public trust doctrine forbids the impairment of water-related uses, but as long as our chemical policy is founded in ignorance, we are breaching the doctrine hundreds of times over. It’s time to right the wrong and protect the public trust — and health.


     [1] See 84,000 Chemicals on the Market, Only 1% Have Been Tested for Safety, Ecowatch, July 5, 2015 https://www.ecowatch.com/84-000-chemicals-on-the-market-only-1-have-been-tested-for-safety-1882062458.html; Mark Scialla, “It could take centuries for EPA to test all the unregulated chemicals under a new landmark bill,” PBS hour, June 22, 2016 https://www.pbs.org/newshour/science/it-could-take-centuries-for-epa-to-test-all-the-unregulated-chemicals-under-a-new-landmark-bill

    [2] See Keith Matheny, “DEQ: Harmful PFAs might contaminate more than 11,000 sites statewide,” Detroit Free Press, July 30, 2018, https://www.freep.com/story/news/local/michigan/2018/07/30/deq-pfas-chemical-contamination-pollution-michigan/851152002/; Garret Ellison, “PFAS found in drinking water for 1.5M in Michigan,” MLive, August 23, 2018, https://www.mlive.com/news/index.ssf/2018/08/pfas_michigan_public_water.html.