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by Scott Brown, MWA E-Newsletter Editor and Board Director

Electronic and print media news articles focused on the harmful environmental impacts and enhanced risks to human health associated with a large group of odorless, invisible toxic chemicals referred to as PFAS seem to appear almost every day. Present in soil, sediment, groundwater, wastewater, food, drinking water, and within the waters of our lakes and streams, per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a large group of man-made chemicals that include both perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) that were initially developed by Dupont in the 1940’s. Widely utilized by manufacturers, a few commonly occurring examples of products containing large concentrations of PFAS include firefighting foam, and a wide array of popular consumer products. These include, to cite just a few examples, heat-resistant non-stick cooking surfaces such as Teflon cooking pans, water proofing and fabric protection products, cosmetics, shaving cream, nail polish, food wrappers, takeout containers, carpet, leather, and pet food bags. It is also important to point out that PFAS are sometimes referred to as “forever chemicals” due to the fact that they tend to accumulate over time in the human body and do not break down easily due to their long half-life.

Even in relatively low concentrations, exposure to the vast suite of chemicals known as PFAS has been directly linked to significant increases in the risk of acquiring certain forms of cancer, or of suffering from reproductive and developmental problems, thyroid disease, high cholesterol, or ulcerative colitis. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 95% percent of the citizens of the United States currently have PFAS in their bodies. Moreover, due to the fact that PFAS is now so prevalent in groundwater, soil, and livestock feed, it is also regularly detected in blood samples extracted from milk cows, cattle, sheep, hogs, and other widely consumed sources of meat such as chicken and turkey. Of particular concern to the State of Michigan, and other states including Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York that each have coastlines on Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, however, are the relatively large concentrations of PFAS that are being detected in samples of freshwater fish.

The just released results of a new study conducted by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a non-profit organization dedicated to creating a healthier environment, strongly suggests that PFAS contamination of freshwater fish maybe of special concern to people who depend upon fishing out of economic necessity in the Detroit River, or within other heavily urbanized areas that exist on coast of Lake Erie and Lake Ontario where fish tissue samples detected higher than average levels of PFAS contamination. The study indicated that “widespread PFAS contamination of freshwater fish in surface waters in the U.S. is likely a significant source of exposure to PFOS and potentially other perfluorinated compounds for all persons who consume freshwater fish, but especially for high frequency freshwater fish consumers.”  National testing of fish tissue completed by the United States Environment Protection Agency shows that while nearly all fish present in the rivers and streams of United States possess detectable levels of PFAS, the Great Lakes, and in particular certain areas of Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, are now known to host fish with the highest concentrations of PFAS in the nation. The Environmental Working Group study also suggests that due to the fact that self-caught fish are an important source of subsistence for many individuals living in heavily urbanized areas, fish consumption targeted PFAS advisories are likely to disproportionately affect people who are not likely to be able to afford to replace self-caught fish with commercial fishery sourced fish purchased from their local grocery store. The authors of the EWG study also provides a cautionary note which suggested that consuming a single serving of yellow perch caught in certain areas of Lake Erie, for example, equates to drinking a thirty-day supply of PFAS tainted water. The EWG sanctioned study, entitled “Locally caught freshwater fish across the United States are likely a significant source of exposure to PFOS and other perfluorinated compounds” appeared in the January 2023 edition of the scientific publication entitled Environmental Research.

Providing a seemingly unlimited supply of high-quality freshwater and a viable means of navigating to the outside world via the St. Lawrence Seaway, the Laurentian Great Lakes region has served over the course of last century as the North American base for the automotive, steel, petroleum, and chemical industries, and is therefore particularly vulnerable to the human health and environmental impacts that have thus far been associated with PFAS. Even though PFAS is present in nearly every state, a review of the map which appear below indicates that Great Lakes region states, and particularly Michigan, possess an inordinate number of sites hosting high concentrations of PFAS.  As the map clearly suggests, states bordering the Great Lakes each face a significant economic, environmental, social, and logistical challenge in seeking to contain and prevent further contamination of immensely valuable freshwater ecosystems by the harmful chemicals.

In response to widespread PFAS contamination, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services encourages people to follow the Eat Safe Fish Guides.  The annually updated guidelines provide readers with a detailed breakdown based on fish species, where it was caught, and which pollutant is the problem. The State of Michigan has also created a PFAS Action Response Team (MPART) which is approaching the increasingly widespread PFAS problem with a “unique, multi-agency proactive approach” for coordinating state resources that are being dedicated to addressing the complex problem. The State of Michigan also suggests that those who are especially concerned about their exposure to PFAS can visit the state’s Michigan PFAS Action Response Team (MPART) page for valuable resources and information on areas of the state where water is being tested and where sources of acute contamination are monitored and investigated. Information from MPART on health concerns can be found on their webpage