*This article was published in the Michigan Out-of-Doors Spring 2020 print edition.
By Makhayla LaButte, MUCC Habitat Volunteer Coordinator
First introduced in the development of fire-fighting foams, the market involving PFAS expanded quickly to include “revolutionary” consumer products like Teflon cookware, household cleaning products and other products with fire, grease, stain and water-repellant properties.
So what does this acronym mean? According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), PFAS are defined as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances that include, but are not limited to, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS).
These chemicals are man-made and designed to be very stable when exposed to heat and substances like water or grease. This means upon entering an ecosystem, they do not break down. Instead, it accumulates in soil, water and wildlife.
Both PFOS and PFOA, two versions of the many chemicals included in the PFAS group and the two most commonly found in the U.S., are no longer made here. However, sister chemicals with new names like “GenX” are currently used in their place, and many imported goods contain these chemicals.
Based on the results of a study between 1999 and 2012, largely-manufactured PFAS chemicals like PFOA and PFOS appeared in the blood serum of 99 percent of a sample pool representing of the entire U.S. population. This study is cited in the EPA’s “PFAS Action Plan,”
Aside from causing cancer, exposure to large amounts of these chemicals is also linked to a variety of other ailments in humans that impact the liver, thyroid and reproductive organs.
The EPA concludes that, while the effects of chemicals like PFAS in humans are being increasingly well-researched and documented, more research must be conducted in order to effectively identify their presence in the United States and how they are impacting the living organisms exposed to them.
While the existence of these “forever chemicals” has been identified in humans, additional alarm bells are sounding as these chemicals are being identified in our natural resources. A growing list of states have site-specific problems related to PFAS, and Michigan is among them.
Anyone who has looked into PFAS may have come across a study commissioned by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) regarding PFAS contamination sites in the U.S. In the study, Michigan was highlighted as being home to the most PFAS contamination sites out of the 49 impacted states.
Despite this, Michigan has one of the most aggressive response plans to PFAS contamination in the country and far exceeds the average testing efforts of most states. This statistic may change as more states increase their testing efforts to match the rigor of Michigan’s and more contaminations are detected.
PFAS, Water and Wildlife
In response to public concerns and a slow response from the federal government, the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) has created the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team (MPART).
They are collecting data to better understand what these chemicals mean for the future of Michigan’s public water supplies, watersheds and wildlife populations.
White-tailed deer in identified contamination areas are being tested, and a “do not eat” advisory has been issued for deer harvested within a 5 mile radius of Clark’s Marsh in Oscoda Township. The deer sampled there show elevated PFAS levels.
Due to PFAS’s ability to be transferred via inhalation of contaminated air or consumption of a food source, experts with the DNR and Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) do not advise the ingestion of wildlife known to have heightened PFAS accumulations.
According to the DNR, deer from the Clark’s Marsh area will continue to be tested to determine the persistence of PFAS contaminants in the white-tailed deer population in the Clark’s Marsh area and if the advisory needs to remain or can be lifted.
Tammy Newcomb, Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) senior water policy advisor, lead coordinator for DNR PFAS research and chair of the PFAS Wildlife Workgroup, is working to make sense of the research taking place in Michigan.
The goal is to help the DNR better understand how the emerging contaminants move through and accumulate in terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. This may also impact human exposure to the compounds.
“We understand that in the case of deer and most other wild animals, the liver and kidneys will have the highest concentrations [of PFAS], so our advice to everyone statewide is to not eat the liver or the kidneys, as those are the filtering organs of the body,” Newcomb said. “So, if the deer has been exposed [to PFAS], those are the organs that will have the highest concentrations.”
MPART has also been collecting samples from Michigan’s watersheds. Individual reports have been generated for sample sites within the Clinton River, Lake St. Clair, the Flint River, Grand River, Huron River, Kalamazoo River and River Raisin watersheds.
In each of these watersheds, including the rivers and communities that are connected to them, elevated PFAS concentrations exist. It is found in either discharge water entering the water bodies, fish, residential wells or the water bodies themselves.
In areas where fish tested high in PFAS concentrations, the MDHHS issues a consumption advisory — in some instances, recommending that fish caught from the entirety of a contaminated river, not just select portions, not be ingested.
The persistence of these chemicals in the environment places PFAS alongside several other concerns for Michigan anglers that include the bioaccumulation of mercury, PCBs and dioxins in fish.
However, research is beginning to show that PFAS is unique in how it accumulates in aquatic ecosystems.
According to Newcomb, the dissimilar behavior of PFAS contaminants are what makes them so challenging to understand and respond to.
Unlike common aquatic contaminants, PFAS concentrations have been greater in small fish like bluegill and lower in predator fish like bass. Instead of concentrations of PFAS increasing as you go higher up the aquatic food chain, the concentrations decrease.
Additionally, the high solubility of PFAS chemicals in water may indicate that fish are exposed to the chemicals through the filtration of water through their gills and not through direct ingestion.
This hypothesis will likely be tested through future research efforts, as it is not yet known how fish uptake PFAS.
Newcomb said that another key difference between PFAS and other chemical aquatic contaminants is where organisms store them in their body.
For example, PCB accumulates in the fat of fish, and anglers can follow guidelines on how to avoid consumption of the stored chemical. We do not yet understand how fish store PFAS contaminants and more research is required.
This emerging group of contaminants also has implications on the state’s waterfowl populations. With many of the largest watersheds in Michigan containing confirmed PFAS accumulations, it is likely waterfowl inhabiting these areas have also developed accumulations of the contaminants.
Concerns have already been raised by those who have seen waterfowl swimming through foam. Bright white, sticky foam can be one of the signs of PFAS contamination in aquatic ecosystems.
However, not all foam contains PFAS. Foam also occurs naturally in water bodies as a result of the biological degradation of vegetation and other natural occurrences. PFAS foam is distinct from its natural counterpart in its vibrant white and sudsy appearance.
Currently, the PFAS Wildlife Workgroup is working with the DNR to develop a sampling technique on waterfowl, like ducks.
The method will take into account specific species behavior and migratory patterns in order to provide useful information to hunters about how PFAS is impacting this popular game species.
“The very first question that’s of the highest priority when it comes to contamination issues is public health,” said Newcomb. “Our initial work [with waterfowl] will try to characterize potential PFAS contamination in waterfowl populations and how it pertains to human health.”
Michigan: A National Leader in PFAS Response
Moving forward, it is critical Michigan continues to monitor and address PFAS concerns to both humans and the environment in affected areas. More research must be done on the impacts of these chemicals as they pertain to fish and wildlife management.
The information stemming from past and current lab studies, current human exposure and affected fish and wildlife indicate that the way we interact with and harvest our natural resources in Michigan may be altered in the future. The persistence of man-made chemicals that fall under the classification of PFAS is causing this.
Like most emerging threats to Michigan’s citizens and natural resources, PFAS is shrouded in an unnerving uncertainty that will only be overcome through diligent investigations and efficient response efforts.
Luckily, Michigan has risen to the challenge and is now considered a national leader in PFAS research and response efforts. According to Scott Dean, spokesperson for EGLE, Michigan is currently renowned throughout the U.S. for responding to these compounds.
EGLE began its research into PFAS in 2017. For the department to develop effective testing, it brought in a panel of leading epidemiologists and toxicologists. This includes reviewing all known scientific literature on PFAS.
Dean expresses that EGLE knows Michigan residents are impacted by the presence of these contaminants, whether or not they spend significant time outdoors, and no matter how they enjoy Michigan’s abundant water supply. Human and wildlife health remains a priority for all entities involved in PFAS research.