Tag: health

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.


The State of the Great Lakes

Are the Great Lakes getting better or worse?

Any good scientist will tell you that’s a short question with a long answer, a simple question with a complicated answer.  And after a half hour of trying to explain it to you, they will have made it only a little simpler.  If you’re lucky.

So why is it so difficult to create a report card informing the interested public about the condition of the Great Lakes?

It’s not that people haven’t been trying.  Beginning in the 1990s, the many talented Great Lakes scientists and government agency staff presented data on so-called indicators at State of the Lake Ecosystem Conference (SOLEC) gatherings.  They offered up scores of measures including the health of benthic organisms, levels of chemical contaminants in herring gull eggs, the number of public beach closings, the quality of finished drinking water, phosphorus concentrations in water, toxic air pollutants deposited to water, and more.  Each indicator had a rationale, and most had solid data to back them up. 

But there were too many – over 100 at the beginning, and approximately 80 as late as 2011.  The array of likely and potential indicators was so large that it constituted an unfathomable Great Lakes report card.  How to simplify?

While the scientists wrestled with their data and discussed which indicators best told the story of Great Lakes health, taxpayers spent hundreds of millions of U.S. and Canadian dollars without lucid measures of whether they were paying for improvement.  Pressure was building.  And something happened.

Following the 2011 SOLEC, organizers created a highlights report to distill what the indicators said.  Organized around the three principal results sought by governments – protection of the physical, chemical and biological integrity of the Great Lakes ecosystem – the report contained a clear verdict – to a point:

Water quality status is fair, and the trend is deteriorating.

Aquatic-dependent life status is fair, and the trend is deteriorating.

Landscapes and natural processes status is fair, and the trend is improving.

Two out of three indicator groupings deteriorating?  No rocket scientists were needed to explain that one.  But “aquatic-dependent life” is a term not many members of the public could define.

The highlights report put it this way: “The overall deteriorating trend for aquatic-dependent life is a result of decreasing preyfish populations, the declining population of Diporeia (a source of food for small fish), and the declining populations of many coastal wetland species. The food web has been drastically altered.”

As the statement suggests, judgments about a profoundly complex natural system are themselves complicated.  They address matters and species that generalists never consider.  It’s no wonder that the experts have resisted simplifying the ecosystem to an A through E elementary school style report card.

Although publicly available, the data and conclusions in the highlights report were not widely broadcast.  You had to look for them on the Internet. 

It was still not a report card, but governments and scientists were getting there.

The International Joint Commission devoted considerable time to prodding the Canadian and U.S. governments to narrow the list, recommending 16 indicators – but 41 “measures.”  One recommended indicator was persistent, bioaccumulative toxins in biota, but consisted of two measures, chemicals in whole fish and chemicals in herring gull eggs and bald eagles.  It was a step toward simplification, but it demonstrated that even when bringing the number of indicators down, governments and scientists would and perhaps could go only so far.

Dave Dempsey

A report card is still important.  Without it, the public would be left to draw conclusions based on hunches, anecdotes or a misleading façade.  For example, clearer water means healthier water, right?  Not necessarily. Invasive zebra mussels, by consuming plankton in the water column, clarified it, but no one seriously argued that invasive mussels were a good thing.  The plankton they consumed would ordinarily have fed native prey fish.

The report card effort, like almost everything else bearing on the health of the Great Lakes, pivots on how much work citizens are willing – or able – to do in understanding the waters they love.  We must meet the scientists halfway.