Ann Arbor is trying to stay ahead of the curve on an emerging class of chemicals called PFAS. PFAS, Perfluoroalkyl and polyfuoroalkyl substances, are a family of more than 3,000 manufactured chemicals that were put into production in the 1950s. Found in stain resistant and waterproofing materials, carpets, plastics, and even body care products, they do not break down in the environment and can accumulate in the bodies of fish and wildlife.
Studies show that exposure to PFAS at levels even below federal health guidelines have been linked to certain kinds of cancer, kidney disease and may affect learning and development in children. Exposure can occur through drinking contaminated water, eating fish from contaminated water, inhaling contaminated dust, or using consumer products that contain PFAS, Some studies suggest that even getting PFAS on your skin can lead to exposure.
Ann Arbor’s Water Filter System
Since November, 2017 the city has been testing a new granular activated carbon filtration system to protect our drinking water. This system can filter out two PFAS compounds that comprise the EPA’s lifetime health advisory. According to Brian Steglitz, Ann Arbor’s Water Treatment Manager, the city is using the best available technology to ensure contaminants are filtered out of the city’s drinking water. Ann Arbor and Plainfield Township are the first two utilities in the state to use this type of filter to remove PFAS.
After replacing five filters with a new carbon media that proved effective at removing the PFAS over EPA guidelines, the city council approved a $850,000 investment to replace the remaining 21 filters with the same carbon product.
Testing and Regulating PFAS
Ann Arbor has been testing its surface and drinking water for PFAS since 2014 and continues to test regularly. The EPA sets a non enforceable lifetime health advisory level at 70 ppt for PFOS and PFOAs, which are two particular PFAS chemicals. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality tested 24 PFAS chemicals in Ann Arbor drinking water and found that together they were at 39 ppt. According to the city, some of the chemicals tested have no health advisory level making it difficult to know and measure an acceptable level.
Though the city’s drinking water has always been below the EPA health advisory level, when the MDEQ tested surface water and fish in Norton Creek this year, a tributary to the Huron River, they found readings of 5,500 ppt of PFOS, a particular chemical in the PFAS class. This prompted a ‘do not eat fish’ advisory. About 85% of Ann Arbor’s drinking water is sourced from the Huron River. As Michigan is one of the states leading the charge in PFAS testing they are finding more communities whose water contains very high levels of the chemicals.
“The DEQ is doing a lot of testing, but we need better regulation and enforcement,” says Laura Rubin, Executive Director of the Huron River Watershed Council. The DEQ identified Tribar Plastic Finishing Plant in Wixom as at least one of the sources of the PFAS contamination in Norton Creek, a tributary of the Huron River. The company says it stopped discharging PFAS in 2015, but trace amounts of the chemicals are still found in their system.
Rebecca Meuninck, the Ecology Center’s Deputy Director, agrees with Rubin and other state legislators calling on Governor Snyder to take more immediate action to stop discharge that contains any contaminants. “From our perspective, even if a company stops using one type of PFAS chemicals, there are thousands more in that class of chemicals that are not regulated and could still be in use.”
Is there a Safe Level?
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently suggested that the 70 ppt standard for surface water be lowered to 10 ppt. Currently, Michigan sets its standards by adopting EPA health advisory guidelines but there are no enforceable drinking water rules for PFAS. “We’re targeting our treatment to meet future regulations,” says Steglitz. “We continue to measure the effectiveness of our filters because we’ll need that information to inform future replacement plans.”
Though scientists agree that PFAS have widespread effects on the environment and human health, federal regulatory agencies continue to debate about safety standards. “We don’t even know what levels are safe for humans,” says Rubin. Given these uncertainties, groups like the Ecology Center are working on preventative solutions like finding safer chemicals to manufacture certain products. “It’s about the health of the whole ecosystem. Prevention is key,” says Meuninck.
To learn more call or visit the Health Department of Washtenaw County. The Environmental Health staff can provide personalized information and guidance 734-222-3800 or washtenaw.org/2704/PFAS.
In smaller Washtenaw County towns like Dexter, Saline, Chelsea, Milan and Manchester the primary source of drinking water comes from groundwater (wells). Michigan has been testing groundwater separately, and so far no PFAS have been detected in these towns.
The city of Ann Arbor gets 85% of their drinking water from the Huron River—the rest comes from groundwater.
Ypsilanti gets their drinking water from the Detroit River and no PFAS have been detected.
Join the movement for healthy water and a clean environment.
Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families
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The Environmental Working Group
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The following companies sell certified household filters that can remove PFAS. Look for granular activated carbon or reverse osmosis filters.