Michigan’s PFAS problem: “Nobody saw it coming”

Michigan’s PFAS problem: “Nobody saw it coming”
August 8, 2018 Mary Ellen Geist
Photo by Dustin Tinney via flickr.com

Interview with PFAS expert Dr. David Savitz

Last week, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder’s office declared two townships in Kalamazoo County a state of emergency due to elevated levels of the chemicals called “PFAS.” The amount is 20 times what the EPA says is unsafe.  Residents were told not to drink the water from the municipal drinking water supply. The state opened up centers to hand out bottled water supplies. Kalamazoo County is flushing out Parchment and Cooper Township’s water supply with clean water and says it will let the 3,000 residents temporarily use its water until their water is safe again.

Meanwhile, A “Do Not Eat” Fish advisory went out for three counties along the Huron River near Detroit due to high levels of PFAS.

The EPA says the amount of PFAS in water becomes unsafe at 70 parts per trillion.

This past weekend, a pre-school near Grand Rapids was discovered to have elevated levels of PFAS in its drinking water supply: 182 parts per trillion.

To find out more about PFAS contamination and what it can do to water and to the human body, Great Lakes Now talked with PFAS expert Dr. David Savitz. He’s a Professor of Epidemiology at Brown University School of Public Health in Rhode Island. When I was not recording our interview, I asked him why we seem to know so little about PFAS and why the U.S. seems to have blindsided by it. He said, “Nobody saw it coming.”

Great Lakes Now - Detroit Public TV (logo)Great Lakes Bureau: How did you become involved with PFAS?

David Savitz: I got my PHD in Epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh. I’ve held faculty positions at a number of institutions, including the University of Colorado, Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, and the University of North Carolina. For the past 8 years, I’ve been at Brown. I’ve done work over the years in a variety of environmental health concerns and reproductive health concerns.

I had the opportunity in 2005 – I was invited to become part of a C-8 science panel set up in a Mid-Ohio Valley lawsuit against Dupont, where a manufacturing facility  had resulted in environmental contamination that had exposed a large number of people – 70 thousand people. They had substantially elevated levels of PFAS and PFOA in various drinking water supplies.   It happened along the Ohio River in both Ohio and West Virginia. Parkersburg was the biggest city affected. It covered both sides of the river in both states.

Great Lakes Now - Detroit Public TV (logo)How did the PFAS contamination occur?

 There was a manufacturing facility there called Washington works, a plant owned by Dupont. They were using this chemical in substantial amounts. And at the time it was not known if it was an environmental health concern. There were substantial releases over a period of roughly  25 years. No ambiguity there about the source or the pathways. And we were even able to re-construct the history and estimate exposures over a long period of time.

There was a substantial financial settlement that included an agreement that a certain amount of money would be set aside for research. It was jointly agreement upon. Dupont was providing the funds for it. So, we were part of a process that came out of a settlement of lawsuit in 2005.

Great Lakes Now - Detroit Public TV (logo)What specifically did you find in your research in West Virginia?

There’s a lot of material on this. But basically, the health study – our job as the science panel – was to offer our judgment on which diseases might be linked to these exposures and to offer our judgment about whether there was a probable link –  in the legal sense –  between these exposures and health outcomes. And we did make a determination of certain diseases. We did find evidence supporting a link. And that included kidney cancer, testicular cancer, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disorders, elevated cholesterol, and elevated blood pressure during pregnancy.

Great Lakes Now - Detroit Public TV (logo)I know this is a question that is hard to answer, but can you tell me: is there proof …….. has anyone died specifically from PFAS contamination?

I’m not sure what you’re asking. Obviously, if somebody develops kidney cancer for whatever reason – with or without chemical exposure – they’re treated and cared for with or without those conditions.

Great Lakes Now - Detroit Public TV (logo)I guess I’m asking: can someone die from ingesting PFAS?

You just don’t know in any individual case. What we were looking at was in the population  where we saw evidence of an elevated risk within the population. We don’t know of an individual – they may have gotten the disease even without the exposure.  But overall, there were more people getting these conditions than were expected.

Great Lakes Now - Detroit Public TV (logo)So tell us more about PFAS.

PFAS Is “polyfluoroalkyl substances. ” This is what it stands for. It’s the broad class of related chemicals. I’m not a chemist, so I can’t give you the formal technical  definition – but it’s a class of related chemicals that includes some that are quite familiar – PFAS and PFOA – but it includes hundreds, perhaps thousands of similarly configured chemicals.

Great Lakes Now - Detroit Public TV (logo)Where do humans come in contact with PFAS?

This class of chemicals has a wide range of industrial uses. They were used in food wrapping, non-stick cookware, and treating fabrics. They really have a variety of useful chemical properties. They were widely distributed in the environment, which is why – even in the absence of a specific source – all the water supplies in the country have some low levels of these chemicals, and all the people across the world have at least some low levels of these chemicals in their blood.

Great Lakes Now - Detroit Public TV (logo)So I know that Michigan’s Governor, Rick Snyder’s office, reached out to you to ask for your help identifying PFAS contamination in Michigan. How did that come about?

They invited me to provide – again, my role is to help bring the scientific evidence to bear on the judgements being made regarding PFAs in the state – to be part of what’s called the MPARTS  program (Editor’s Note: The Michigan PFAS Action Response Team) –   and I’m now heading a science panel that is going to be delivering a report to provide that input. We’re not making the decisions. That’s the government’s job. But what we’re trying to do is make sure that we have the best scientific evidence there is to bear regarding these decisions regarding these chemicals.

Great Lakes Now - Detroit Public TV (logo)It’s my understanding that Governor Snyder has been out ahead of other states in identifying the PFAS problems, and that’s why these states of emergencies and other PFAS revelations are coming to light right now.

I am independent. I am an academic. But I have to say the extent to which the state government has been proactive has been quite impressive. They’ve been very proactive. The reason they want me and others that I’m working with involved is that they want the best scientific information they can get. They are in no way downplaying it or avoiding it. That’s why Parchment near Kalamazoo was identified. We’re going to look at every water supply in the state to find problems if they exist and manage those problems. There’s no reason to think these are more common in Michigan or there’s a bigger problem in Michigan. They’ve simply been more up front about it.  Other states have varied in how energetically they’ve tried to find these hot spots and what they can do to mitigate the problem.

Great Lakes Now - Detroit Public TV (logo)I still don’t get why we didn’t see this coming.

It’s just unknown. Again, this was a not a chemical that was on anybody’s radar screen before the year 2000. We just weren’t aware it was so persistent and so widespread. It was measured at very low levels. “Parts per trillion” seems like such a low level.

Great Lakes Now - Detroit Public TV (logo)So many of us may have been ingesting this chemical for decades, right?

 There is no water monitoring level for PFAS for 60 years ago. But what can be done is to understand the environmental source, where it came from. track that down, and learn what you can about whether it’s in the water supply, how it’s moving through the water supply, through the aquifer over time. I’m not an expert in water hydrology and engineering, but sometimes there are ways of reconstructing the history.

Great Lakes Now - Detroit Public TV (logo) So what do we do now?

Going forward, we make sure that exposure ends; that communities are provided with a contaminant-free water supply. And we try to understand the source, how it came about, and how it might affect other communities as well.

Great Lakes Now - Detroit Public TV (logo) People who are living in Parchment and in Cooper Township – where there’s a state of emergency in Michigan – want to know what’s going to happen to them if they’ve been drinking PFAS contaminated water for decades. What can you tell them?

The scientific evidence on health effects is still quite limited. The work I did in the Mid-Ohio Valley was very informative but it’s still ongoing. The exposure levels were much higher than even the worst-case scenarios we are finding in Michigan. We saw evidence of increased risks in The Ohio Valley. These were not profoundly elevated risks. They were modestly elevated by most measures. It’s not to say we aren’t concerned. We are concerned, and that’s why there’s a lot of interest in avoiding and reducing exposure. But if you had to make a guess –there would be an increased risk, if there is long-term exposure – of the diseases I mentioned: high cholesterol, certain types of cancer: testicular  and kidney cancer, ulcerative colitis and thyroid disorders. Those are the kind of conditions you would be looking for most immediately.

Great Lakes Now - Detroit Public TV (logo)How do you test for elevated levels of PFAS in humans?  

You certainly can measure these chemicals in blood. It mainly tells you whether there’s an environmental source. So, let’s assume you and I have low levels of PFAS.  If we’ve been served by a water source that has elevated levels of PFAS, those elevated levels will show up in the blood.

(From Great Lakes Bureau Chief Mary Ellen Geist: greatlakesnow.org will keep you updated on this story as new developments occur. We are also producing a “PFAS explainer” video that will give you more details about the effects of PFAS as well as an historical perspective. It will be posted soon on greatlakesnow.org and on DPTV’s MiWeek.)

Featured Image: Lake Michigan, Photo by Dustin Tinney via flickr.com


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