National Wildlife Federation report urges state lawmakers to take action on PFAS | Michigan Radio
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National Wildlife Federation report urges state lawmakers to take action on PFAS

Sep 10, 2019

Elevated PFAS contamination in the Great Lakes region has resulted in several "Do Not Eat" warnings for local communities.
Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

A report from the National Wildlife Federation report is urging state governors and lawmakers in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York to take steps to address the growing issue of PFAS in the Great Lakes. The report says state action is crucial, as it is unclear as to whether a “divided Congress and ambivalent White House” will do enough to confront the problem. 

The report brings together research from the past few years to present a big-picture view of PFAS contamination in the Great Lakes. In it, Michael Murray and Oday Salim of the NWF discuss the sources of PFAS in Great Lakes waterways, and its effects on the greater ecosystem. Documented effects of exposure to PFAS in humans include a higher risk of kidney and testicular cancers, a weakened immune system and metabolism, and increased cholesterol. 

Sandy Wynn-Stelt is a resident of Belmont, Michigan. She says she and her husband lived on land with groundwater contaminated with PFAS for over 20 years without realizing it. 

“In 2016, my husband went in for what we thought was going to be a minor surgery, but he was diagnosed with stage 4 liver cancer, and he died three weeks later," Wynn-Stelt said. "My whole world was shattered. The next year, I was approached by the DEQ to test my water for PFAS, and my groundwater at the time was found to be contaminated, at over 38,000 parts per trillion.” 

Exposure to PFAS in communities around the state has lead to various warnings telling hunters and fishers not to consume wildlife, one of those being for deer hunted within five miles of Clark’s Marsh in Oscoda, Michigan. Cathy Wusterbarth of Oscoda is the co-director of Need Our Water. She says this has been devastating for the community.

“We have people that are hunting in [Clark’s Marsh], and they had already hunted the deer in that area and are using it as their main source of protein due to our low-income area. So in terms of economics and risks in the past, that may have occurred to their health, are unknown, so we’re asking for more biomonitoring of blood levels for people in this area.”

The report also outlines a variety of potential courses of action that state and local lawmakers could take to help reduce PFAS contamination. The federation emphasizes already existing federal policies like the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Clean Water Act, saying that states should follow the guidelines in those acts to protect drinking water. This includes pre-treating of PFAS in public wastewater treatment facilities, developing enforceable cleanup criteria for contaminated sites, and allocating funding for vulnerable communities to update their water treatment technology.

Oday Salim is the staff attorney for the NWF and a co-author of the report. He says states cannot rely on the Environmental Protection Agency and other federal government groups to be aggressive enough about combating the threat of PFAS in Great Lakes communities.

“It’s always good when you have a federal floor established by these congressional laws. But then again, those laws, like the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Clean Water Act expressly direct states to implement them and tell states that while there can be a federal floor, and states can certainly never go below that federal minimum, states are free to set their own ceilings.” He posits that “the federal statutes envision that states will take that charge and set better standards…there’s no good reason for states to wait around for the federal government.” 

Salim says that Michigan is taking steps in the right direction to combat the threat of PFAS contamination.

“Michigan has already developed numeric surface water quality criteria, those are the maximum levels that you can have of a pollutant in a water body. And of course, Michigan has some hazardous waste clean-up criteria for PFOS and PFOA. So, in many ways, Michigan has at least set more standards than others. There are more standards that need to be set and should be set.”

The next steps, Salim says, should be to develop more protections for drinking water, as opposed to just surface water in general.