PFAS: What are the possible health risks?
This week, we’re looking at PFAS chemicals: they're industrial chemicals that have contaminated water sources around the state.
PFAS chemicals are used to make a lot of products stain and water resistant.
They’ve been used in several industries and in firefighting foam. At least 35 sites around Michigan are known to be contaminated with the chemicals.
Michigan residents are wondering what it could mean for their health if they've been exposed.
Living with uncertainty
Linda Kolich and her family are living on bottled water. They can’t drink from their tap.
“I’ve never had this amount of anxiety. This anxiety from the water is huge,” she says.
They live in Cooper Township, near Parchment. It’s a city near Kalamazoo.
This summer, water tests showed high levels of PFAS chemicals in Parchment’s city water. State officials say they suspect operations at an old paper mill contaminated the city’s well.
The Kolich family’s not on city water. They’re on a private well.
But state officials are investigating to see how far the contamination has spread beyond the city.
“We were drinking out of the tap because it was well water. We thought it was fine and now we’re not sure,” says Kolich.
That means the state is paying for the Kolich’s bottled water, while they wait for answers.
“This is our five gallon water jug and I’m putting it into the biggest tupperware container that I have,” she says, pulling lettuce out of a bag. “Then I put a colander into the bowl of water and put it into that and swish it around.”
She washes the lettuce in bottled water, then uses that same water to wash some pieces of green pepper for a salad she's making for dinner.
Kolich says they cook everything with bottled water. They brush their teeth with it.
Linda and her husband Greg adopted a daughter together, Renee. She's five years old.
Renee’s been jumping on the trampoline outside. She comes in and pours herself a little cup of water from the jug.
“I could need another drink. After this, I think I might need one more. I do get thirsty,” says Renee.
Linda Kolich says she just wants their well tested, so they can get some answers. She wonders what it could mean if their well water is contaminated.
“I’m worried about my daughter. I wonder what health issues it could bring to her life. I mixed her formula with this water. It’s scary. I think about this all the time,” she says.
Kolich says Renee was born with some neurological issues, and she worries that if their water is contaminated, it might add to Renee’s problems. She also wonders about her own health. Kolich is currently in remission from cancer she was diagnosed with in 1997.
"I'm not obsessing about this, but I wonder, am I going to go out of remission? I've been in remission since 1999," she says. "I'm very fortunate, but I've got a little girl to raise now. I've got to stay healthy."
There are more than 4,000 kinds of PFAS chemicals. Scientists know the most about two kinds: PFOA and PFOS.
State health officials are aware that people are worried.
Dr. Eden Wells is the chief medical executive for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.
“We’ve seen in certain populations that have been exposed to levels of PFAS, higher levels of kidney cancer, testicular cancer, liver abnormalities mainly in the blood test, cholesterol abnormalities in the blood test. We’re beginning to see also impacts on the immune system, particularly in children. Even higher rates of asthma than would be expected,” says Wells.
She says the state has been talking to doctors, telling them what to say to their patients if they’ve been exposed to PFAS in their drinking water.
“To monitor overall health, to monitor especially issues around the immune system, kidney function, thyroid, liver,” she says. “What we don’t know is, if a specific health issue occurs, whether that can be tied to PFAS exposure.”
The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry has this fact sheet for physicians.
The ATSDR says newborn babies can be exposed to PFAS chemicals through breastmilk.
Eden Wells says right now, the benefits of breastfeeding outweigh the risks of PFAS.
“There are numerous benefits from nursing, and we want to keep that going. I will say, please talk to your physician about that. You may have other health issues, and we want to be sure you’re getting the best guidance from your physician,” she says. “We do know breastfeeding can be very, very beneficial and we don’t want people to stop unless we learn scientifically that there’s a reason to do so.”
Should you get your blood tested?
Some people who have been drinking PFAS-contaminated water have gotten their blood tested.
“I’m a curious person myself,” says Wells. “If I knew I’d been drinking high levels of PFAS in my drinking water, I’d have a personal curiosity. We know the blood levels will certainly be proportionately elevated over the United States average.”
But Wells says we don’t yet know what those test results mean for a person’s health.
“That blood level will not tell me if I’ll have cancer 20 years from now. That said, we do feel these blood levels are very helpful in exposure assessment studies we’re starting to do here in Michigan,” she says.
The state is planning to run those studies with local health departments, including one in Kent County, and one in the Parchment area. Wells says those will involve testing people’s blood for PFAS chemicals, and following them over time.
Wells says if you do want to get your blood tested, you can ask your doctor to contact the local health department to find out how to do it.
Most of us have some level of PFAS chemicals in our blood.
We get exposed to these chemicals in a number of ways.
Elsie Sunderland is the Gordon McKay professor of environmental chemistry at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering.
“In communities that have contaminated drinking water, that can easily overwhelm all the other sources,” she says.
She says some fish can be contaminated in local areas. The chemicals are in a lot of outdoor gear, some food packaging and in our carpets, and they’re even in dental floss. The chemicals can also get into dust in our homes.
State officials say it’s safe to shower in water contaminated with PFAS chemicals.
Sunderland says she agrees showers are not a big concern.
“Dermal contact, you know, direct uptake through skin is thought to be quite small. But there’s not a lot of data to support that yet, so I think we need a little bit of additional work to confirm that that’s true,” she says.
She says there are several ways to reduce your exposure.
If your drinking water is contaminated, you can install a reverse osmosis or granular activated carbon filter. You’ll want to look for one that’s NSF certified.
Sunderland says you can vacuum your carpet often and wash your hands and your kids’ hands before you eat. She says you can also reduce your exposure to PFAS from non-stick cookware by not overheating pans, and by not using pans that are scratched.
You can find more tips on reducing exposure here.