The PFAS threat is continuing to evolve rapidly throughout Michigan and in the Huron River Watershed. We previously discussed the nature of PFAS chemicals, contamination in the Huron River, and what was being done about it in our Spring Newsletter. We now know more.

First the good news. Levels of PFOS and PFOA, the two PFAS chemicals for which there is an EPA health advisory level, have continued to drop in the Huron River since Tribar installed filtration systems to remove the chemicals from their

Foam in the Huron River
If you see foam in the Huron River, avoid it entirely to protect yourself from PFAS exposure. PFAS collects in foam, which naturally occurs on rivers. There’s no way to tell just by looking at it, how much PFAS is in foam.

wastewater discharge. PFOS and PFOA levels measured in Barton Pond near the intake for Ann Arbor’s drinking water have been below 3 ppt each in recent tests.

After first delaying action on PFAS, the EPA began taking steps to understand the risks and evaluate what steps they can take. That’s a good trajectory, but even if the federal government does take meaningful action and institutes regulations that sufficiently protect drinking water supplies, it will take years. The state will be able to create new protections much faster.

The State of Michigan completed their first wave of testing all public drinking water supplies. Statewide, 62 public sources tested positive for PFAS at any level. The majority of public drinking supplies in the state had no detectable level. In addition to Ann Arbor, only 3 other water supplies were found to have detectable levels of PFAS in the Huron River watershed. Those identified contained low levels, in the 2-7 ppt range, in wells in Brighton and Green Oak.

Governor Whitmer ordered the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team (MPART) to continue its mandate established by Governor Snyder. MPART has been critical for understanding and monitoring the PFAS threat. In March, Governor Whitmer also ordered MPART and DEQ (now the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, EGLE) to begin an accelerated rulemaking process for enforceable PFAS drinking water standards.

Now the bad news. Research on the health effects from PFAS chemicals has advanced. It is even clearer that the current EPA advisory level of 70 parts per trillion for PFOS and PFOA is way too high. Concern about other PFAS contaminants, for which there is no advisory level, is also growing and much less is known. In response, the state established significantly lower screening levels (preliminary health advisory levels) for five types of PFAS. The screening levels will likely be a foundation for establishing final drinking water standards.

Protect Yourself From PFAS Exposure

Avoid foam in or near the Huron River. The lower screening levels also triggered the state to revise their advisory to avoid ingesting foam. They now recommend avoiding foam entirely. On the Huron River, there are a few things you can do to protect yourself from PFAS foam exposure:

  • Avoid touching foam and make sure to keep pets and kids away from foam.
  • Although it feels nice on a hot summer day, don’t linger in the spray immediately below dams. It may be possible to inhale PFAS attached to water vapor.
  • Wash off with soap and water once you get home from paddling or swimming in the river.
  • Enjoy swimming and boating on the river away from foam. Skin contact with river water or foam isn’t a concern. The risk is that concentrated PFAS in foam can get on your hands and clothes and eventually make it into your mouth or nose.

Foam naturally occurs on rivers and PFAS tends to concentrate in foam, but there’s no way to know how much PFAS is in any glob of foam just by looking at it. There may be very little, but it’s best to play it safe and treat all foam on the river as potentially containing high levels of PFAS.

Don’t eat fish from the Huron River. Another round of fish testing from the river was completed. The Do Not Eat Fish Advisory for the Huron River upriver from Ypsilanti will likely continue for the foreseeable future. The data suggests that the advisory may be lifted sooner in areas downriver, but the advisory is still in place.

Looking Ahead

MPART will be testing several more sites that are potential sources of PFAS in the watershed. The areas they’ll be focusing on include the stretch of river between Dexter and Ann Arbor, Horseshoe Creek, which runs through Whitmore Lake and Hamburg, and locations near Willow Run Airport.

All of this can feel a little overwhelming, but that’s partly because the action at the state and local level has been relatively rapid. HRWC is following conditions as they develop and advocating for swifter action. We need you to keep calling your state and federal representatives. Tell them we need strict, clear, and comprehensive drinking water standards to protect our families from PFAS. And demand greater protection from harmful chemicals being used in the first place.

For more information, check out our PFAS webpage here.