Originally posted on MLive by Garret Ellison on December 15, 2017.
Michigan would have the toughest legal drinking water limit for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances called PFAS in the nation under terms of new state legislation introduced this week by Rep. Winnie Brinks, a Democrat from Grand Rapids.
On Dec. 13, Brinks and six Democrat co-sponsors introduced Michigan House Bill 5373, which would establish a state standard for PFAS in drinking water of 5-parts-per-trillion (ppt), which is 14 times lower than the Environmental Protection Agency’s health advisory level of 70-ppt for two PFAS chemicals, PFOS and PFOA.
The bill was referred to the House Natural Resources Committee chaired by Rep. Gary Howell, R-Lapeer. Any movement on the bill wouldn’t happen until mid-January at the earliest, when the state legislature returns to session.
Brinks said the bill is intended to “start a conversation” about what kind of regulatory limit the presently unregulated contaminants should have in Michigan, where the state is investigating 23 sites in 14 communities with the pollutant so far.
PFAS have generated significant attention this fall after Kent County private and municipal drinking water contamination was traced to historical tannery waste dumping by Wolverine World Wide, the shoemaker behind the iconic Hush Puppies brand.
Homes in more than eight square miles in Algoma and Plainfield townships are being tested for the presence of PFAS chemicals in an expanding investigation sparked by this year’s the rediscovery of an old tannery sludge dump on House Street in Belmont.
Wolverine used PFAS-laden Scotchgard to waterproof leather.
Brinks said the EPA 70-ppt advisory level — a non-regulatory limit that is not enforceable by law like a drinking water standard — isn’t as protective of public health as it ought to be. States like New Jersey, Vermont and Minnesota have set lower limits.
“Maybe 5-ppt is not exactly the right number, but we need to start with sufficiently low number that were having a real conversation about actual health impacts with a specific level,” she said. “From what I’ve read, 70-ppt is just way too high.”
Having a legal enforceable limit would ease concerns among private well owners and give public and private water utilities a “specific mark to hit by law,” Brinks said. “I think that clarity would be really helpful in terms of those two areas.”
The Environmental Working Group (EWG), a nationwide advocacy group that focuses on chemicals in drinking water and consumer products, praised the bill. A House Republican representing the Kent County area undergoing PFAS testing was more circumspect.
“Obviously, we rely on scientific evidence and the opinion of the EPA to give us direction in this matter and they have said 70-ppt — with an abundance of caution — is where it should be for drinking water,” said Rep. Chris Afendoulis, R-Grand Rapids Township.
“It’s best for us to rely on the expertise of scientists and scientific study before we start legislating parts-per-trillion on, in this case, PFAS, but you could be doing this on a whole host of chemicals and things people already know are in their water,” he said.
“To the extent the EPA and DEQ say the scientific evidence shows that we should be lower, then I think it’s something we should look at in the future. But for now, we should rely on the expertise and science that’s out there and that’s been done,” Afendoulis said.
However, public health researchers and the EWG says the EPA’s number is the subject of serious debate around the country as more and more locations discover drinking water contamination from industrial or military use of PFAS chemicals.
Vermont now has the nation’s lowest legal PFOS and PFOA limits, at 20-ppt. New Jersey plans to set a 14-ppt PFOA limit and has proposed a 13-ppt limit for PFOS.
Minnesota — home to 3M, which manufactured the chemicals Wolverine used at the tannery — updated its standards in May to 35 ppt for PFOA and 27 ppt for PFOS. Minnesota says the lower limits are meant to protect fetuses and nursing infants because PFAS exposure in the womb can be critical during short developmental periods.
The EPA advisory level may not be as health-protective as new research indicates it should be and doesn’t incorporate recent toxicology studies, say EWG scientists.
“Federal drinking water regulations are failing to protect the public but states do not have to rely on this broken system,” said David Andrews, a senior EWG scientist.
“The fastest route to ensure clean drinking water is state action, such as the legislation introduced by Rep. Brinks to set more stringent limits for PFOA and PFOS contamination of water,” said Andrews.
“It is encouraging to see Michigan join other states — such as New Jersey and Vermont — that have set or proposed legal drinking water limits that provide greater assurance of safety than the federal health advisory levels.”
Wolverine has supported the 70-ppt threshold, which it calls “very conservative” on a blog the company is using to communicate online.
Wolverine vice president of strategy Chris Hufnagel defended the EPA level as “safe water” at the recent townhall meeting in Rockford.
“That is the number that’s been established by the EPA,” he said, adding that Wolverine is giving whole-house filters to residents with any PFAS detection in their well, even below 70-ppt.
The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services also considers 70-ppt to be based on “good science.”
At the Rockford townhall meeting, DHHS environmental health director Kory Groetsch said the health department uses the latest available science but said there’s still a lot to be learned about PFAS and how it affects humans.
The EPA level is “based on what we know now,” Groetsch said.
“We can only act on what we know today,” he said. “Give it a month, give it a year, we will know more.”
Brinks said that state government has a duty to ensure the safety and well-being of its citizenry and having a legal limit rather than a voluntary threshold for a problematic water pollutant seems like a practical way to meet that goal.
Were Michigan to set a standard lower than 70-ppt, it could force the federal government to do more in communities like Oscoda, where the U.S. Air Force won’t pay for long term alternative water to homes with PFAS in the wells around the former Wurtsmith Air Force base, unless it’s over the EPA level.
“The EPA advisory level is really the only ‘standard’ to which anybody has been working,” Brinks said. “It seems like that would be an important way to make a large impact in terms of assessing actual health risk and getting assistance to households that are impacted.”