TRAVERSE CITY — PFAS chemicals are a group of thousands of man-made substances that are fire-resistant and also repel oil, stains, grease and water, which made them popular in retail and industry.
These synthetic substances are found in products kept in cupboards, medicine cabinets, closets, pantries and refrigerators across America. The chemicals also are found in firefighting foam historically used nationwide by military installations and airports. PFAS chemical contamination has been found at such sites, along with manufacturing plants, in surface waterways and even in sources of public drinking water in other parts of Michigan.
PFAS, which is an acronym for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are pervasive in modern society. They have been dubbed “forever chemicals” because they are expected to take thousands of years to degrade and some even accumulate in people’s bodies.
“It’s everywhere,” said Kevin Hughes, health officer for District Health Department No. 10 which covers a 10-county region including Crawford County, where decades of PFAS contamination from the Michigan Army National Guard’s Camp Grayling now affects hundreds of private water wells.
“Across the globe, it’s almost impossible to find anyone without some in their bloodstream,” said Jeannine Taylor, public information officer for the health department.
Potential health ramifications include fertility and immunity problems, developmental delays in children, hormonal interference and an increased risk of cancer, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry at the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Michigan Department of Health and Human Services officials issued warnings to avoid foam on waterways known to have PFAS contamination. They also published fish consumption guidelines for both Lake Margrethe and the AuSable River from Grayling downstream to Mio — surface waters polluted by PFAS-laced firefighting foam historically used at Camp Grayling.
“We don’t think PFAS is absorbed through the skin. At least, we don’t have scientific information that says so,” said Sesha Kallakuri, a DHHS toxicologist.
Kallakuri said the foam warning is precautionary and intended to stop hand-to-mouth contamination so common among children. Additionally, the suspected health effects are only probable links at this time as so little is yet scientifically known about PFAS chemicals, she said.
“We are still trying to understand how that exposure might result in health effects,” Kallakuri said.
PFAS chemicals were created by replacing hydrogen atoms with fluorine — a type of halogen — atoms at the molecular level, making a physically stronger bond, said Tom Rohrer, a toxicologist and the current director at Great Lakes Institute for Sustainable Systems at Central Michigan University.
Rohrer said most bacteria enzymes evolved to break down carbon-hydrogen bonds, but not carbon-halogen bonds like those in PFAS chemicals. On the molecular level, it’s a very difficult chemical to break down, both physically and biochemically, he said.
The toxicologist described PFAS chemicals as the “flavor of the month” when it comes to chemical pollution, what he described as another family of harmful substances put into widespread use before complete ramifications are known. It’s a trend with unknown and likely long-lasting ramifications, Rohrer said.
A local environmental advocate agreed.
“This problem emphasizes our failure to understand cradle-to-grave life cycles of chemicals and I hope will usher in a new era,” said Liz Kirkwood, executive director of Traverse City-based nonprofit For Love of Water organization.
Kirkwood said she hopes industrial users will be held accountable for their pollution.
Officials with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are in the process of their first PFAS Action Plan, meant to identify both short- and long-term strategies to clean up pollution sites and provide clean and safe drinking water sources.
State regulators also are in the middle of developing enforceable drinking water standards through the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team.