PFAS: How much do residents trust state officials?
UPDATE: This story was updated at 3:53 p.m.
This week, the Environment Report is looking at industrial chemicals called per- and polyfluoralkyl substances – or PFAS.
People all over Michigan have questions about these chemicals that are being found in their drinking water.
Some residents don’t trust all the information they are getting from the government and are looking for answers on their own.
Travis Brown, a long time Comstock Park resident, worked at a Lacks Enterprise plating plant back in 1999 where he used PFAS chemicals to control plating baths.
“PFAS, what it does, is it puts down a layer of bubbles kind of like a bubble bath, and it basically traps hexavalent chromium from escaping into the air,” Brown said.
Brown says at the time, he thought PFAS protected workers from more dangerous chemicals.
“I always thought of it as the lesser of two evils, mostly because we used it as the safety product,” he said.
But his thoughts on PFAS changed nearly 15 years after he left Lacks Enterprises.
“The first time I ever heard about it being used as something we should be worried about would’ve been Garret Ellison’s article in 2016,” he said.
Ellison wrote articles in The Grand Rapids Press about groundwater contaminated with PFAS in Northern Kent County. Since then, state and county officials have met with residents to talk about the pollution.
PFAS compounds have been discovered at high levels in private wells, municipal water systems, and larger bodies of water all over Michigan.
Brown co-founded the citizens group Michigan Demands Action Against Contamination in November 2017. He created a Facebook page and began sharing all the information he could find. This page was the first Bob Jones, a Comstock Park resident, had ever heard about the ongoing PFAS contamination.
“That’s not a really good way to find out your water is poisoned,” Jones said.
Jones gets his tap water from Plainfield Township, and he says no government entities warned him about the water.
Back in 2013, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality found that PFAS in the township water supply was above 60 parts per trillion, when the EPA advisory level was still at 200 parts per trillion. The state adopted 70 parts per trillion as its standard for PFAS earlier this year.
“In my mind, zero parts per trillion should be the standard,” he said.
Recent test results show PFAS levels in Plainfield Township water have dropped to less than 10 parts per trillion, but Jones says he’s still skeptical.
“I have no confidence that they’re interested in solving this problem,” he said.
Plainfield Charter Township Superintendent Cameron Van Wyngarden doesn't understand how Jones could not have known about all the measures the township is taking to deal with PFAS.
"Plainfield Township has worked extensively to ensure residents whose well water is affected by high levels of PFAS have had the accurate information they need," Van Wyngarden said in an email to Michigan Radio. "We’ve dedicated a portion of our website to share information. We started a weekly enewsletter to help provide accurate information to residents. We’ve participated in public hearings on the issue...We’ve lobbied to secure state funding (from the DEQ) so we could remove all traces of PFAS from our municipal system."
Other residents say they’re happy with how the state has handled the contamination so far.
Robert Pakiela lives in Parchment, a town right next to Kalamazoo. Pakiela spoke to Michigan Radio after a town hall meeting about PFAS contamination in Parchment city water back in July.
“The people up there on that panel are pretty well informed, and they’re letting us know what’s going to happen and what hasn’t. It’s been good,” Pakiela said.
While Pakiela thinks officials are doing a good job, other residents can’t help but be reminded of how the state handled the Flint water crisis.
Dr. Eden Wells is the chief medical executive with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. Wells, who was a figure in the Flint water crisis, believes the state has learned from its mistakes.
“If there is a silver lining for the Flint water crisis it’s that we have a more vigorous forward-leaning stance towards the approach to potential environmental impacts to health of any chemicals,” Wells said.
The state is in the process of testing more than 1,300 public water supplies, including some schools, for PFAS. But Brown wonders what other dangers might be lurking in our drinking water.
“What should you be worried about are the chemicals that are not being tested for,” Brown said.
Brown thinks the best way for residents to stay safe is to take matters into their own hands by filtering their tap water, for example.
He says people have put too much trust in governments to keep them safe.CORRECTION:
An earlier version of this story reported that Plainfield Township had a PFAS level of 70 ppt in 2013. The actual number was 60 ppt. The story has been updated to reflect the change.
An earlier version of this story did not contain a comment from any Plainfield Township official in response to Mr. Jones' claim that the township never notified him about PFAS in the water. A response has been included in the updated story.