Scientists: Michigan may need stronger standard for toxins

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. — Michigan’s standard for protecting drinking water from certain toxic chemicals may not be strong enough to safeguard human health, a scientific panel convened by Republican Gov. Rick Snyder said Tuesday.

The finding by the Michigan PFAS Science Advisory Committee highlighted a 99-page report to state officials grappling with the emergence of pollution from man-made chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS.

The group of chemicals is used in thousands of applications, from firefighting foam to household products such as stick-resistant cookware, food packaging, cleansers and water-repellant clothing.

They’re described as “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down in the human body or the environment. They have been linked to a variety of health problems, including liver and kidney damage and compromised immune systems, and may cause cancer.

Michigan is conducting statewide testing of community water and school supplies for PFAS. The Department of Environmental Quality is investigating more than 30 known contamination spots, including industrial sites, military installations and landfills, where PFAS levels exceeded 70 parts per trillion.

That threshold is based on a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency health advisory level. Some environmental groups and lawmakers are pushing the DEQ to adopt a lower trigger point, saying some PFAS chemicals can cause harm at lower concentrations in drinking water.

The science advisory committee stopped short of recommending an exposure standard for Michigan but suggested that the state consider a stronger one.

“We are dealing with shades of gray here. It’s not a black-and-white issue,” David Savitz, the panel’s chairman and an epidemiology professor at Brown University, said in a call with reporters. “I’m quite comfortable saying we don’t know, but have expressed our view that (70 ppt) might not be adequately protective.”

It will be up to Democratic Gov.-elect Gretchen Whitmer’s administration and state legislators to decide whether the existing threshold is adequate.

Carol Isaacs, director of the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team, said the report would give state policymakers good background for debating enforceable standards.

“Working with local health authorities, we will continue to advocate alternative water or enhanced water treatment for communities with unusual levels of any PFAS contamination even when below 70 ppt,” Isaacs said.

However, Democrats said an environmental cleanup bill on the verge of enactment during a lame-duck session would make it harder to toughen the standard.

The bill, which narrowly cleared the Republican-controlled House 56-53 on Tuesday, would require the DEQ to use EPA toxicity values when setting cleanup criteria for hazardous substances and take additional steps when upgrading standards.

“It seems that we’re just adding more bureaucracy to a process that’s already slow and lengthening the time that it would require us to act,” said Rep. Abdullah Hammoud, a Dearborn Democrat.

The measure earlier cleared the GOP-led Senate, where its sponsor, Republican Sen. Jim Stamas of Midland, said it would make “long-overdue updates” that would promote cleanup and reuse of abandoned industrial properties.

In addition to considering a new exposure standard, the PFAS report made a number of recommendations, including continuing to identify and treat drinking water supplies with high contamination levels. Certified filters should be used where well water is tainted and alternate water sources aren’t available, it said.

It also called for testing volunteers living near high-level PFAS sites and said the state should broaden its water supply testing to include a wider variety of PFAS chemicals.

By Kerry Minor

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