Glasses of drinking water on a table.

State of Water: Panel Discusses Lead, PFAS Contamination in Michigan

Michiganders take pride in our state’s abundance of water for its natural beauty and recreational opportunities. It literally borders and defines the state on maps and globes.

“You can see Michigan from space because we are framed by water,” said Adam London, director, Kent County Health Department.

Water has also defined the state in not so flattering ways over the past several years. From the lead crisis in Flint to ongoing revelations that our manufacturing past has left chemical traces harmful to health in our groundwater, Michigan will likely continue to make headlines as we grapple with how best to ensure clean water for all.

London moderated an expert panel who took up the issue of Michigan’s water quality and safety at the most recent Health Forum of West Michigan, community conversations held the first Friday of every month at Grand Valley State University’s downtown Grand Rapids campus. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan and Blue Care Network sponsor the events.

Leading the Nation in Updating Lead Infrastructure

For municipal water users, Michigan is the first state to require water utilities to eventually remove all lead drinking water service lines. The so-called Lead and Copper Rule outlawed partial lead service line replacements because of the risk they pose to homeowners in releasing lead into the water.

Starting in 2021, communities are required to replace five percent of their lead lines every year, although some municipalities are unsure of how to fund such a large undertaking.

Read more about Michigan’s response to the Flint water crisis here.

PFAS Poses Threat to Municipal Water Users and Those with Private Wells

Michigan is also the first to require testing for PFAS, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or man-made chemicals that have been used in various manufacturing capacities in the United States since the 1940s.

PFAS chemicals are hard to avoid. They’re found in cookware, fast food containers, shampoo, dental floss, cosmetics, paints and varnishes, stain-resistant carpet, water-resistant apparel, cleaning products, electronics, pesticides, potting soils and in many other consumer goods. When PFAS concentration levels exceed 70 parts per trillion, state guidelines recommend that residents use bottled water and filters.

Research shows high levels of certain PFAS in humans can affect the growth, learning and behavior of infants and children, negatively affect fertility and interfere with hormones, increase cholesterol levels, decrease immunity and increase the risk of certain types of cancers. Kids with high levels of PFAS in their system might need additional vaccinations to bolster their immunity.
Teresa Seidel, division director, Water Resources Division, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality said it’s best to divert PFAS from the water cycle and that the agency works to find and contain sources of such contamination, often attributed to large manufacturers.

“We want to get it out of the environment as much as we can,” Seidel said.

While a concentration of 70 parts per trillion doesn’t sound that alarming, Richard Rediske, professor, Water Resources, Robert B. Annis Water Resources Institute at Grand Valley State University, said the unique properties of PFAS make it uniquely concerning.
“For certain chemicals, it is serious,” he said.

PFAS are hearty chemicals. They bioaccumulate in plants and animals, aren’t biodegradable and bond to proteins and DNA in people. The human kidney doesn’t do a good job of excreting PFAS.

Rediske said people worried about their exposure to PFAS from drinking water or other sources should invest in an NSF-certified carbon water filtration system and research purchasing decisions to avoid buying products that contain the chemicals.
If you live in an area where PFAS has been discovered, a blood test can help you understand where your levels are at. The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services also has a toxicology hotline you can call if you’re concerned about exposure to PFAS in your drinking water: 800-648-6942.

Learn about Michigan’s PFAS Action Response Team (MPART) here.

Other Sources of Water Contamination

Besides lead and PFAS, other potential contamination sources for groundwater include agricultural runoff, leaking storage tanks, landfills, failing septic systems and abandoned wells and manufacturing cleanup sites, said Liz Kirkwood, executive director, FLOW (For Love of Water), a Traverse City-based non-profit dedicated to protecting the Great Lakes.

Contaminated groundwater is a big concern as about 45 percent of Michigan residents rely on it for their drinking water and as much as 42 percent of water in the Great Lakes originates from groundwater.

“It’s that invisible resource that’s out of sight, out of mind,” Kirkwood said.

Read FLOW’s report about threats to Michigan groundwater, The Sixth Great Lake, here.

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