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Opinion: We must determine if Michigan PFAS health risks actually exist

Brian Steglitz is the chair of the Communication Council of the Michigan section of American Water Works Association.

When our grandparents first started turning on the tap and marveling at the instant flow of clean drinking water on demand inside their homes, the process for treating and delivering it was less advanced than it is today. It is only in recent history that we have been able to monitor and control for an abundance of water quality parameters, although we have been treating water for more than 100 years.

The Safe Drinking Water Act was first passed only a little more than 40 years ago. Most of our current drinking water regulations came in the 20 years following its passage.

Today, drinking water professionals have taken advantage of scientific advances in testing and are more able to identify, analyze and remove potentially harmful substances that were previously not detectable, such as from pharmaceutical or personal care products. Such products may include hormones such as estrogen or drugs such as ibuprofen, which can be detected at the parts per billion (ppb) level, and in some cases, at the parts per trillion (ppt) level. One ppb is equivalent to one drop of water in an Olympic-size swimming pool, and one ppt is equivalent to one blade of grass from 1,000 football fields.

Newer substances, such as PFAS or polyfluoroalkyl, are now being discovered in drinking water at these extremely low levels, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are producing studies on their potential risks.

According to the EPA, sources of PFAS are typically localized and associated with a specific facility, such as a chemical manufacturer or landfill.

Like our testing technology, treatment capabilities have also improved. Today’s water treatment facilities use state-of-the-art equipment operated by highly trained men and women schooled in the science of water quality and treatment. Water industry professionals take great pride in their ability to provide one of nature’s most essential commodities to their local communities, with public health and convenience as key priorities.

While we work diligently to keep harmful substances out of drinking water, we must also determine whether health risks actually exist. Relying on federal and state standards, we are constantly responding to new challenges that could impact our water quality.

Earlier this year, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality adopted the EPA health advisory level for two PFAS chemicals. It is a maximum level of 0.07 parts per billion (ppb) as the combined amount of perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) that, if exceeded, may cause health impacts.

The level is less than one drop in 10 Olympic-sized swimming pools. While it is considered safe to bathe or swim in water containing PFAS, some studies indicate that ingesting the chemicals can affect growth, learning and behavior of young children, lower a woman’s chance of getting pregnant, increase cholesterol levels and increase the risk of certain types of cancer, among other human health effects.

In 2017 the state of Michigan formed a Michigan PFAS Action Response Team (MPART) to investigate and coordinate a multi-agency response plan to address Michigan resident exposure to PFAS chemicals. Exposure to low levels of chemicals can come from many sources, and some of the most common and highest doses are typically not from drinking water.

PFAS chemicals are in many products we use daily, such as non-stick coating on pots and pans, dental floss, carpet cleaners, and sandwich wrappers to name a few. We applaud MPART’s work to study exposure routes and develop solutions to protect public health. The Michigan Section of the American Water Works Association is pleased to be a partner with MPART and State officials, to develop science-based solutions to address emerging contaminants that may impact public health and the environment.

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