PFAS is an acronym for a group of industrial chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances.
They've been used since the '50s, in everything from firefighting foam to fast-food paper wrappers to stain-resistant textiles and carpeting, waterproof shoes and boots, non-stick pots and pans, and more.
Studies have shown PFAS to be linked to various health problems — including a higher risk of some cancers.
The chemicals have been found in groundwater in 29 sites in 14 communities around the state, and it seems that the more the state DEQ looks, the more contamination it finds. Getting firm answers on how much PFAS exposure is dangerous and how to best clean it up has been hard to nail down.
Tom Bruton, a scientist at the Green Science Policy Institute in California who has written about coordinating health research in PFAS-contaminated communities in the United States, joined Stateside to give his perspective on how Michigan is doing.
Listen above for the full conversation, or catch highlights below.
On the extent of the impact
"It depends on what level of exposure we're talking about, but the number is in the millions. So a study that we did a couple of years ago estimated, based on the best EPA data that we have, that something like 6 million Americans are served by water supplies that contain levels of PFAS at concentrations higher than what EPA says is safe."
On cleanup challenges
"They're more difficult to clean up than other types of contaminants. Ideally, when you're dealing with a contaminated site, you can imagine an aquifer underground is sort of like a cup of Coke, and that all the liquid in that cup of Coke is contaminated, you'd like to clean it all up. For other types of contaminants, we have, for instance, bacteria that we can use to clean up all the contaminated groundwater because those bacteria can break down the contaminants. That doesn't work with PFAS because they're so stable, they're so strong. Instead, all we can do is basically filter out the Coke that's coming out of the straw that you have into this cup, so any well that's pulling up water that's contaminated with PFAS, we can filter that water, but we're not really taking care of the problem. We're going to have to keep filtering that water for as long as we want to use it, so they're quite challenging from the remediation perspective."
On other obstacles to finding solutions
"One of the big issues is a lack of data. Because these contaminants are not regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act like many water contaminants. Utilities are not required to test for them and so it's hard to know where they are, at what levels, and so it's hard to say if you have a problem. If there was more mandated monitoring for these chemicals, then scientists and state officials would be able to do a better job prioritizing how to spend their resources to protect public health."