Ottawa County features PFAS discussion at annual Water Quality Forum

Attendees learned how a broad category of chemicals known as PFAS might impact human health and heard examples of state and local government response.

By: Katelyn Brolick and Dan O’Keefe

A child's hand is shown pushing down on a drinking fountain handle in order to have water bubble up.

Drinking water contamination is another route of PFAS exposure that has been gaining public attention since the discovery of contaminated wells in Rockford and Plainfield Township last year.

This year’s Ottawa County Water Quality Forum was held on Nov. 19, 2018, in West Olive, Mich. The forum tackled many water quality issues that face county residents, including plastic pollution, saltwater intrusion into wells, and the impact of excess nutrients in local lakes. One of the bigger issues tackled at the forum was PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances). Dr. Richard Rediske of Grand Valley State University’s Annis Water Resources Institute has been looking into the effects and contamination of the chemical for the past five years. Dr. Rediske addressed the Water Quality Forum and provided facts on the harmful properties of these chemicals, as well as their many uses.

PFAS exposure

According to Dr. Rediske, PFAS is a broad category of more than 4,000 different chemical compounds which includes PFOS and PFOA. These chemicals are water soluble and are highly mobile within the environment. The fluorine-carbon bonds in PFAS are the fourth strongest bonds in nature, making PFAS very difficult to break down and dispose of. These chemicals are entering the environment and human bodies through exposure to a variety of products including firefighting foam, fast food wrappers, popcorn bags, pizza boxes, and car wax to name a few. Drinking water contamination is another route of PFAS exposure that has been gaining public attention since the discovery of contaminated wells in Rockford and Plainfield Township last year.

These chemicals bind to albumin in the bloodstream and are reabsorbed by the kidneys in humans.This results in a half-life of 4 to 7 years in humans. In animal studies, rats excrete PFAS chemicals in 1 to 3 days, so scientific studies using common test organisms do not reflect the same exposure levels as humans. The risks associated with long-term exposure are not fully understood, and standards for monitoring are still under development. Possible health effects of excessive PFAS exposure include increased risk of cancer, elevated cholesterol, a compromised immune system, and thyroid disease.

Protecting Michigan citizens

To close out the forum, a panel of PFAS experts convened to answer questions from the public. Dr. Rediske was joined by Abigail Hendershott, (Michigan Department of Environmental Quality), Cameron Van Wyngarden (Plainfield Township Superintendent), and Douglas Van Essen (attorney with Silver and Van Essen). Hendershott discussed what the Michigan PFAS taskforce is doing to help protect Michigan’s citizens. The taskforce is sampling all community water sources and schools that have their own water source. They are now moving on to testing daycares and some residential wells. Through testing, Robinson Elementary in Ottawa County was found at 171 parts per trillion (ppt). This exceeds the EPA’s 70 ppt recommendation for combined PFOS and PFOA. Water bottles were allocated to the school for drinking and cooking. A more permanent solution has not been discussed with the public.

Cameron Van Wyngarden discussed the solution that Plainfield Township adopted when they found their municipal sources were highly contaminated. They are now using carbon to filter all of the township’s water. Carbon filter can be an effective way to remove PFAS and PFOA from your home water tap. Douglas Van Essen added that, although PFAS are highly mobile and resistant to degradation, the human body does gradually excrete them over a period of years. This means that people can expect contamination in their bodies to gradually decline if sources of environmental exposure are cleaned up or eliminated.

Learn more

If you are concerned about your water source or would like more information on the topic the www.michigan.gov/pfasresponse site is an excellent source of information. Presentations from Dr. Rediske and other PFAS panel members are now online at the Ottawa County website.