“Scientists and regulators are trying to define their approaches to highly fluorinated chemicals – collectively known as PFAS – as officials increasingly discover them in water supplies, prompting concerns to escalate…
Should we wait for word on our water systems or test our tap? Is it worth buying a filter, just in case? What do we do with old cans of Scotchguard? Do we need blood tests? How do we know our Teflon pans are safe?
These questions and more logically follow news of PFAS spreading in Michigan.
Answers are still developing, due in part to research that only starts to clarify many of the health risks to humans – such as increased cancer risk and changes the immune system and liver. For example, Dan O’Connor of Oscoda asked his doctor about a blood test, after learning that PFAS reached his home well. But his doctor said he wouldn’t know how to treat him if the reading was high. Now, O’Connor just watches for symptoms…
The most dangerous way for people to be exposed to PFAS is through drinking water, because of the way the chemicals act (and don’t degrade) in water. Eating contaminated fish is next, because of the way it concentrates in the fish. Skin and respiratory contact is said to have fewer risks for adults.
Here are some ways Michigan residents can identify or lower exposure to PFAS:
If you’re on a municipal water supply, learn what testing shows. All of the public systems in Michigan will be tested this year, but the larger ones already went through rounds of testing after PFAS was added to a temporary requirement of the Environmental Protection Agency. If the reading is under 70 parts per trillion, the water provider doesn’t have to change anything – but some are, given the increasing concerns about the chemicals. Ann Arbor, for example, is in a filtering pilot program, and Plainfield Township near Grand Rapids recently added more rigorous filtration.
If you’re on a well near an area of concern, contact your local health department about testing. ‘Alternate water or a filtration system may be available to you,’ said Scott Dean, DEQ spokesperson. The State of Michigan Environmental Assistance Center also can be contacted at 800-662-9278.
If you’re on a well and not within an active investigation area, test it yourself. Private labs will test for a few hundred dollars. Then report it to the DEQ, so that the statewide monitoring knows where PFAS was found – or not. ‘They just need to contact the general DEQ inquiries line and we’ll get it to the right division/regional office,’ Dean said.
Buy your own in-home filter. NSF International tests systems and rates them based on filtering claims. Three manufacturers now offer NSF-approved point-of-use devices. These products have been tested to the NSF Protocol P473 – with water starting at 1,000 parts per trillion (ppt) of PFOS and 500 ppt of PFOA – and capacities of these products range from 200 to 1,320 gallons. The filters reduce the PFAS to 70 ppt or below, representing the lifetime federal health advisory from the Environmental Protection Agency. Listings of these certified products can be found on the NSF website. If you have questions about water treatment, call NSF at 1 800 673 8010 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Use caution when catching fish that you’ll eat. PFAS travels quickly and unpredictably in water – so consider that when catching fish and exploring Michigan’s Natural Resources. The state publishes annual ‘Eat Safe Fish’ guides for all regions. The information is based on testing from a year previous (or longer), and the presence of PFAS won’t be noted in all areas. The DNR will classify the fish based on the contaminant with the most health risks, so you may see a warning for mercury – that won’t mean that PFAS isn’t present, just that mercury ranks higher on the health advisory scales.
Research before you go into a lake or river. Don’t assume that signs are posted in areas of known risk. One example: Foam with extremely high levels of PFAS have been found on Van Etten Lake near Oscoda and the Rogue River in Kent County, and the state will be removing it. In the meantime, “do not eat” advisories have been issued for the foam, but the shoreline isn’t marked.
Protect your pets and livestock. If you identify PFAS risks in your water, use similar precautions for your animals as you do for yourself. ‘Contact a veterinarian if you suspect that your pet or livestock is experiencing liver, kidney, immune response, or reproductive issues and you suspect that your animal has had PFAS exposure,’ according to the state’s Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.
Products labeled stain- and water-resistant likely contain PFAS chemicals. Neither PFOA nor PFOS are manufactured in the U.S., nor are they added to products made here, as of 2015. However, they still are used globally. Assume that some type of PFAS is in any product with those labels. That includes clothing, fire-retardant items and furniture.
Research your rugs and carpet. If it’s stain-resistant, there’s a chemical – likely some form of PFAS – giving it that property. Some environmental groups want any PFAS chemical used in a rug or carpet to be considered for toxicity. California, for example, is taking steps to regulate PFAS in carpet. While PFAS from carpet is considered low-risk for most people, young children of an age to crawl or play on carpet face more risk, according to the Center for Disease Control.
Ask your restaurants. Fast food wrappers have been considered a source of PFAS contamination, but they ‘largely have been phased out of food packaging materials,’ according to the CDC. Products like microwave popcorn and ‘shiny’ cardboard have been among the culprits.
Check out your cookware. Nonstick cookware, through the name brand Teflon, was made with PFOA for many years. Now some PFOA-free versions are available, but they may contain other versions of PFAS. Consider buying ceramic, glass or cast-iron cookware. Experts suggest that nonstick pans stay below 500 degrees to prevent chemical decomposition. Don’t use them on high heat, since the vapors are the danger. And if you’re using non-stick pans, don’t use metal kitchen tools with the pans – that will reduce the risk of the flaking, which Consumer Reports has said could cause uneven heating and increased emissions. The publication suggests disposing of flaked pans.
Check ingredients on cosmetics. Avoid cosmetics with PTFE or any word containing ‘perfluor’ or ‘polyfluor’ on their ingredients list, the Green Science Policy Institute says.
Dispose of old products safely. PFAS and the brands associated with it — like Gore Tex, Scotchguard and Teflon — were once considered safe. Now that early versions of those products are identified as dangers to health and the environment, those contaminants will follow discarded products into the waste stream. Many items have low levels of the contaminant, and communities advise to throw them away or put into recycling. But aerosol cans can be considered household environmental waste – and you can follow your community’s guidelines for that.
Still wondering what to do? Check out the MPART website, which continues to be updated with information on PFAS. The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services also runs a Toxicology Hotline at 800-648-6942.”
Read the full article by Paula Gardener