What Are PFAS and How Do They Affect Your Health?

water pouring into cup

Jarrod Eaton

Master’s Student, Global Health Epidemiology

Currently, 36 municipal drinking water sites in Michigan have been identified as having high levels of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), a group of man-made chemical pollutants used in a wide variety of consumer products. The 36 confirmed drinking water sites serve over 1.9 million people, or nearly 20 percent of Michigan’s population. Additionally, experts estimate that the amount of PFAS is higher than average in more than 11,300 sites across the state that have yet to be tested.

Both the International Agency for Research on Cancer and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have classified certain PFAS as potentially increasing the risk for some cancers, such as kidney and testicular cancer. They have also been found to be associated with other harmful health effects in individuals who come into contact with the group of chemicals on a regular basis.

There are several types of PFAS, all of which are synthetically manufactured and do not occur naturally in the environment. They are most commonly used in industries for waterproofing and flame retardant materials. They break down slowly and are highly soluble, allowing them to easily transfer between soil and surface water. A common source of exposure is through drinking contaminated water. The two subtypes of PFAS most commonly found in the environment are PFOA and PFOS.

What Is the State Doing to Protect Residents from PFAS?

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) is continuing to conduct testing throughout the state in drinking water, groundwater, wastewater and other sources. In addition, in 2017 the state created the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team (MPART) as a multi-agency response to address the growing concern of PFAS exposure within the state.

MPART’s Local Public Health Advisory Committee serves as a liaison to address locally identified issues. The committee also facilitates data sharing and communication between federal- and state-level initiatives centered around testing and remediation within local communities.

Making Michigan Water Safe

Currently, the EPA Lifetime Health Advisory (LTHA) is set at 70 parts per trillion (ppt) for PFOA, PFOS or any combination of the two in drinking water. This limit does not provide a cut-off point between safe and unsafe conditions. This is a non-regulatory recommendation that is not enforceable by law.

Although the overall health effects of PFAS exposure are not fully understood, groups such as the Michigan Environmental Council are already in support of establishing a drinking water standard for acceptable levels of PFAS under the Michigan Safe Water Drinking Act. They also advocate for greater transparency from the State of Michigan in releasing to the public all PFAS test results and reports gathered from other agencies. A recent draft study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also shows that levels of exposure to PFAS ranging as low as 7-11 ppt can be linked to negative health effects. This may indicate that the standard monitoring level used by the EPA should be decreased as well.

Ways to Limit Personal Exposure

Michigan residents are commonly exposed to PFAS through drinking from contaminated water sources.  People can consider limiting their PFAS exposure through the use of a home water filtration system, although researchers are still evaluating how effective this intervention is in limiting overall exposure. Factors that affect how well the filtration system operates include the level of contamination, the type of filter, and how well the filter is maintained. Residents can also use bottled water as their primary water source as a way to limit exposure.

Touching contaminated water by means of bathing, washing dishes, doing laundry, and cleaning with contaminated water is not harmful. PFAS chemicals do not have any distinct color or taste. If you believe your water or other areas of your home is contaminated, you can contact the Environmental Assistance Center at 800-662-9278 for additional information on how to get your home tested and steps to prevent further exposure.

Additional information on PFAS can be found on the EPA website.

References

  1. Center for Disease Control and Prevention. 2018. An Overview of Perfluoroalkyl and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances and Interim Guidance for Clinicians Responding to to Patient Exposure Concerns. Retrieved from https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/pfas/docs/pfas_clinician_fact_sheet_508.pdf
  2. State of Michigan. 2018. PFAS Response: Taking Action, Protecting Michigan. Retrieved from https://www.michigan.gov/pfasresponse/0,9038,7-365-86513---,00.html
  3. Michigan Environmental Council. 2018. PFAS in Michigan: What we know and what we need. Retrieved from  https://www.environmentalcouncil.org/pfas_in_michigan
  4. Ellison, G. 2018. All known PFAS sites in Michigan. Retrieved from https://www.mlive.com/expo/news/erry-2018/07/00699c24a57658/michigan_pfas_sites.html
  5. Environmental Protection Agency. 2018. Research on Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS). Retrieved from https://www.epa.gov/chemical-research/research-and-polyfluoroalkyl-substances-pfas

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jarrod EatonJarrod Eaton is a second year master’s student in the Department of Epidemiology at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. Eaton graduated from Saginaw Valley State University in 2017 with a Bachelor of Science degree in Health Science. He currently serves as a research assistant for Paula Anne Newman-Casey’s research team at the University of Michigan Kellogg Eye Center. Eaton is also the epidemiology chair for the Public Health Student Assembly and the professional development chair for the Epidemiology Student Organization.

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