OPINION: ‘Forever chemicals’ will be a problem forever unless more effort is put into regulation
This article is a first-person narrative by PMN Journalist Raine Kuch
Growing up, I remember I always liked the taste of water from our tap. I spent summer days outside as a kid, playing games with my sisters or the neighbor’s kids. Nothing tasted so good to me then as water straight from our faucet after a day in the heat. I loved that it had a slight mineral taste, like I had just dipped a bucket into a stream and taken a swig.
It may seem odd for a post college grad to reminisce over fond childhood memories of tap water. In fact, I probably wouldn’t be thinking about it at all in 2021 had it not been for a discovery in 2018. That the water I had enjoyed drinking my whole life was actually toxic.
Though I grew up in Cooper Township, I went to Parchment Schools and its city limits started at the end of my street, so I tell people I grew up in Parchment for simplicity's sake. For most of my life, people associated my hometown with the old abandoned paper mill that was once Parchment’s namesake.
The paper mill is old news now; today people associate Parchment with its water problems.
On July 26, 2018, it was announced that Parchment’s municipal water supply contained PFAS in 1,587 parts per trillion; over 20 times higher than the EPA lifetime health advisory recommended amount.
PFAS is a poly or perfluoroalkyl substance, but that description means nothing to me. Basically, PFAS is a man-made chemical used in industrial and commercial processes. You do not want this chemical in your drinking water or in your body, because PFAS has been linked to a slew of health problems: low infant birth weights, immune system problems, thyroid hormone disruption, and cancer.
I was finishing up my second year at Western Michigan University when Parchment’s water troubles first hit the news. I wasn’t living at home then; I had an apartment just off campus with two roommates. My mom called me right away. She told me all about how her and my father and younger sister were picking up bottled water from a distribution station at Parchment High School.
Soon after the announcement, people from the city came and put a thin water spout on the kitchen sink at home and told us that this water would be filtered and safe to drink. This was the only safe water in the house until we were given Kalamazoo City water in 2020.
A friend from Parchment called me early after the announcement to talk about the news. I remember she said something along the lines of, “this makes so much sense.”
And it really did. Until then, I had never thought about all the people around me that had cancer: A beloved elementary school teacher, a middle school teacher, family members of childhood friends.
It didn’t seem suspicious to me as a youth, and I would have no reason to suspect the refreshing ground water that served me so well during the warm summers of my childhood. It hadn’t seemed out of place until I heard about PFAS and knew what to look for.
PFAS first started being used in production in the 1940’s. It’s ability to repel grease and water made it an asset in the production of products from shoes to dental floss.
PFAS will build-up in the body and stay there. Every sip of tap water adds up, building PFAS up in the body until it leads to something... bad. Though it does leave the body eventually, it was nick-named “the forever chemical,” to reflect how long it takes to break down in the environment.
Thankfully, Parchment has switched over to Kalamazoo city water, but the effects of PFAS can still be found inside its residents.
I’ve known for two years now that I have PFAS in my body. However much 18 years of gulping water from my faucet adds up to be, that's how much is probably in me right now. I don’t want to do the math.
In December, I heard that the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services was conducting the Michigan PFAS Exposure and Health Study (MiPEHS). This six-year study was asking for participants from Rockfort/Belmont and Cooper/Parchment Michigan to test levels of PFAS in the body and learn more about the effects.
I heard about this study while attending a virtual press conference to cover the story.
In journalism, we often say there are three different types of human sources for our stories: experts, those involved, and those affected. When I attended the press conference I was surprised to see that I fell into the last category, and that I was directly affected by what they were talking about.
Click here for an interactive version of the Michigan PFAS sites Map
The sad truth is that we are all affected by this story. Even if you don’t live in Cooper, Parchment, Belmont or Rockfort. PFAS has become a growing problem in Michigan. It is currently estimated that 11,300 sites in Michigan have PFAS levels exceeding the recommended amount, according to the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy.
In a way, there is a dark irony in this situation. “Pure Michigan” is plastered across billboards and t-shirts everywhere, and the Great Lakes hold over 20 percent of the world’s fresh surface water, yet Michigan’s residents are poisoned by our water supply.
I talk a lot about Michigan because I live here, but the problem is by no means reserved to this state. PFAS can be found in the blood of 99 percent of US Americans, according to the 2003 National Health and Nutrition Examination survey.
It may be hard to believe, but the goal of this article wasn’t to scare anyone, so much as point out a problem. As stated above, 99 percent of US Americans currently have PFAS in their bodies. A problem this widespread would mostly likely have an effective solution already in place, right? Well, not exactly.
The EPA set the PFAS health advisory level to 70 parts per trillion, however this is a non-enforceable limit. Non-enforceable; meaning that it is all bark and no bite. The EPA can send warnings, but essentially can do nothing to hold those responsible accountable.
The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) of 1980, also known as Superfund Law, gives the federal government the authority to respond directly to the release of hazardous substances, establish a trust fund to pay for the clean-up, and to make polluters liable for the messes they make. Original funding for this project started at $1.6 billion and later increased to $8.5 billion.
As great as this sounds, the Superfund Law is limited by the substances it defines as hazardous. PFAS is not listed as a Superfund hazardous substance.
Individual states have taken action to provide their own PFAS clean-up plans. In 2020, New Jersey passed some of the strictest PFAS regulations to date. This included lowering their maximum contaminant level to 13 parts per trillion, and introducing the New Jersey Spill Compensation and Control Act which allows the state to place the blame and cost of clean-up on responsible parties.
I personally wish that more places were following New Jersey’s lead. The range between states' plans for PFAS are wide, which is frankly very concerning for a problem that is so widespread. States like Michigan, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and New York have PFAS guidelines in place, while Alabama, Arizona, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Wyoming, all have no PFAS guidelines at all.
In 2020, Michigan cracked down on PFAS regulations to include seven PFAS compounds in amounts far more stringent than those regulated by the EPA. The new drinking water standard changes clean-up criteria, formerly set by the EPA at 70 ppt for PFOS and PFOA, the two most common PFAS chemicals. The new groundwater standard will be 8 ppt for PFOA and 16 ppt for PFOS.
I don’t claim to be any sort of expert in environmental law and policy but it seems like the answer to this problem is fairly simple.
We need a plan. Not just Michigan, not just New Jersey, but this whole country, and part of that plan needs to involve holding the people accountable who are causing the problems. If polluters face no consequences, then there is nothing stopping the cycle from continuing, and more places like Parchment are bound to start popping up.
I decided to participate in the Michigan PFAS Exposure and Health Study after I heard about it. I got my blood tested in February, and was told to expect an envelope with my results in the mail by April. Until then, I will continue to be like so many other Americans; unaware of how much of this forever chemical is forever inside me.