TRAVERSE CITY — Environmental and health advocates in northern Michigan reacted to news that federal authorities intend to regulate some PFAS chemicals.
It’s a sea change from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s longtime policy of setting a lifetime health advisory standard for the chemicals — meaning what concentration would not be expected to cause adverse health effects over a lifetime of daily PFAS exposure at that level.
Instead, the EPA announced Thursday that it plans to regulate two nonstick and stain-resistant compounds in drinking water amid growing concerns the chemicals — found in everything from pizza boxes to carpet — pose a health hazard.
The agency is targeting a class of chemicals known as perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS.
It will regulate the compounds, PFOA and PFOS, which are among the oldest chemicals in this class and have been phased out in the United States.
It also plans to research whether other PFAS chemicals will be added to the list.
In Michigan, environmental regulators are in the process of establishing enforceable drinking water standards for seven PFAS compounds.
Multiple area environmental champions said they are pleased to see federal regulators move forward with PFAS restrictions, but expressed greater confidence in the efforts of state-level officials.
“We are pleased that the EPA is proposing to regulate two PFAS chemicals in drinking water to protect people across the country,” said Heather Smith, baykeeper with nonprofit The Watershed Center Grand Traverse Bay.
“However, the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team has drafted and received public input on a set of maximum contaminant levels for seven PFAS compounds, including the two compounds being addresses by EPA, to protect Michigan’s citizens. We are hopeful that this set of more comprehensive PFAS regulations for drinking water will be adopted in the near future to protect our citizens,” Smith said.
Dave Dempsey, senior advisor at nonprofit For Love of Water, said he’s not surprised by the EPA’s announcement, but he is wary.
“It will take three to four years before there’s a final standard, if there is one. My fear is that this announcement is intended to head off state actions,” he said.
“If there is a second (President Donald) Trump term, EPA can always change its mind and not regulate PFAS. In the meantime, those opposed to regulating PFAS can try to block state initiatives like Michigan’s,” Dempsey said. “They can say that we should wait for the federal government to act based on what EPA decides is the latest science. And as we just saw with the gutting of the clean water rule, EPA’s science is political science.”
In Petoskey, Jill Ryan is executive director of nonprofit Freshwater Future, which recently identified PFAS contamination in Pellston. She said the agency encourages the EPA to move more quickly than they have and investigate a broader group of PFAS compounds.
“Regulating PFAS substances is an important role the U.S. EPA is responsible for under the Safe Drinking Water Act, and unfortunately they are behind in their actions,” she said. “Because they are not currently regulating the more than 5,000 PFAS substances, states such as Michigan are having to spend time and resources setting their own regulatory limits separately, while people continue to drink water contaminated with these toxins, as was recently highlighted locally in Pellston.”
Until now, the EPA has come under fire from environmentalists for only setting a nonbinding health threshold of 70 parts per trillion for PFOA and PFOS in drinking water. Several states responded by setting their own PFAS limits for drinking water that are far tougher than the federal guidance.
“The U.S. leads the world in providing access to safe drinking water for its citizens, thanks in part to EPA’s implementation of the Safe Drinking Water Act,” Acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said in a statement. “Under President Trump’s leadership, EPA is following through on its commitment in the Action Plan to evaluate PFOA and PFOS under this Act.”
The move comes as the chemicals are increasingly turning up in public drinking water systems, private wells, sludge from wastewater treatment plants and even food.
Military installations that used PFAS-laden firefighting foam and businesses that work with PFAS are two big sources of water contamination, as is the case at Camp Grayling and the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base in northern Michigan.
Known as “forever chemicals” because they persist in the environment, the compounds have also been linked to a growing list of health problems.
Federal studies of people heavily exposed to the compounds have found links between high blood levels of older kinds of PFAS and a range of health problems, including liver issues, low birth weights, and testicular and kidney cancer.
Local health officials said they were encouraged by the news from federal regulators, but wondered how it would coincide with state rules now in the works.
“It is encouraging to hear that the EPA is finally moving forward with addressing this issue,” said Kevin Hughes, health officer for Michigan’s District Health Department No. 10 which covers 10 counties including Crawford, Kalkaska, Lake, Manistee and Wexford.
“The question is, how will it impact what the state is working on with their proposed (maximum contaminant level) changes? At this stage, the EPA is gathering input from the public on how PFOA and PFOS should be regulated, so it will take quite a bit of time before any adjustments come about,” he said. “In the meantime, we continue to work with our state and regional partners to address the issue locally.”
In Grand Traverse County, health department Environmental Health Director Daniel Thorell said the EPA’s announcement is a step in the right direction for the nation as a whole.
“It will be interesting to see what the EPA will set as MCLs for PFOA and PFOS. Regardless, I believe the new (maximum contaminant level) will be much lower than the current lifetime health advisory level of 70 ppt which will prompt the state and local health departments to take another look at results from existing contamination sites,” he said. “Here in Grand Traverse County, all of the affected wells at the Carl’s Retread site are below the proposed new state (maximum contaminant levels).”
National-level environmentalists also welcomed the move but argued it should have come much sooner.
“It’s decades too late but it’s better late than never,” said Scott Faber, Environmental Working Group’s senior vice president for government affairs. “It could still take years — if ever — for EPA to issue a final standard. But it’s a step in the right the direction, and it would not have happened but for a bipartisan sense of outrage.”
Democratic U.S. Sen. Gary Peters said the proposal is imperfect.
“The EPA’s proposal underscores the cumbersome and flawed process of implementing the Safe Drinking Water Act — and does not provide affected Michiganders the immediate action needed to address the PFAS crisis,” he said in a statement. “I will continue working to advance measures that will direct the EPA to take swift action to ensure our drinking water is safe and establish strong PFAS standards. We must also make sure that federal resources are properly deployed to protect our communities from these hazardous chemicals.”
Republican U.S. Congressman Jack Bergman said every American deserves to know the water they are drinking is safe and clean.
“The EPA took a major step this week to address the emerging PFAS crisis across the country. As the public weighs in on this proposal and more scientific data becomes available, it is our duty to act on that information and ensure our Michigan communities have confidence in the safety of the water they use each day,” he said.