Ann Arbor is trying to stay ahead of the curve on a class of chemicals called PFAS.
Perfluoroalkyl and polyfuoroalkyl substances, referred to as PFAS, are a family of more than 3,000 manufactured chemicals that were put into production in the 1950s. Used globally to manufacture household products and fire-fighting foam, the substances are also found in stain-resistant and waterproofing 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, even at levels below those allowed by federal 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 caught in contaminated water, inhaling contaminated dust, or using consumer products that contain PFAS. Some studies also suggest that topical exposure (getting PFAS on your skin), can lead to negative consequences.
Ann Arbor’s activated carbon water filtration system
Since November, 2017, Ann Arbor has been piloting a new granular activated carbon filtration system to protect local drinking water. This system can filter out two PFAS compounds that comprise the EPA’s lifetime health advisory level. According to Brian Steglitz, Ann Arbor’s Water Treatment Manager, the best available technology is being used 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 contaminants and lowering PFAS levels to below EPA guidelines, the City Council approved a $850,000 investment to replace the water treatment system’s 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 (parts per trillion) 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 health level.
Though the city’s drinking water has always been below the EPA health advisory level for PFAS, when the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) tested surface water and fish in Norton Creek (a tributary to the Huron River) this year, 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. Because Michigan is one of the states leading the charge in PFAS testing, more communities with drinking water containing very high levels of the chemicals are being discovered.
“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 the Huron River watershed. The company says it stopped discharging PFAS in 2015, but trace amounts of the chemicals are still found in their discharged water.
Rebecca Meuninck, the Ecology Center’s Deputy Director, agrees with Rubin and other state legislators who have been 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. Yet, the EPA and the White House blocked this health study from publication for six months. 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 there is agreement that PFAS have widespread effects on the environment and human health, federal regulatory agencies, advocacy groups, and scientists continue to debate about safety standards. “We don’t even know what levels are safe for humans,” says Rubin.
Given these uncertainties, entities 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.
Where drinking water originates
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.
To learn more about your water source, call or visit the Health Department of Washtenaw County. The Environmental Health staff can provide personalized information and guidance:
734-222-3800 | www.washtenaw.org/2704/PFAS.
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The following companies sell certified household filters that can remove PFAS. Look for granular activated carbon or reverse osmosis filters.