Regulatory Developments, Special Topics in Environmental Management

Michigan Will Take Action on MCLs for PFAS

Michigan has joined a growing list of states that have lost patience with the EPA’s progress on setting a limit on per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in drinking water. The EPA’s lack of action, says Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer, has compelled her to begin the process of completing a state maximum contaminant level (MCL) for PFAS in drinking water this year.

Drinking water

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As part of the process, Whitmer has directed the state’s PFAS Action Response Team to form a science advisory work group to review both existing and proposed health-based drinking water standards from around the nation to inform the rulemaking. According to a PFAS research team at Northeastern University, currently about 20 states have established MCLs for one or more PFAS in drinking water, set cleanup goals for PFAS at contaminated sites that may be affecting drinking, or are considering similar actions.

Thousands of Products

PFAS were introduced in the 1940s. The PFAS group now consists of more than 3,500 chemicals that have been used in production of thousands of consumer products, including carpets, leather and apparel, textiles, paper and packaging, coatings, rubber, and plastics, as well as in industrial applications such as firefighting foams, chemical processing, building/construction, aerospace, electronics, and semiconductor and automotive products. Some U.S. chemical companies phased PFAS out of their products by 2015. But there is a legacy of contamination, particularly near military installations where PFAS were used in firefighting foam for decades. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) recently said that water sampled on or near at least 106 military sites was contaminated with PFAS, a finding the EWG calls “only the tip of a toxic iceberg”.

According to the EPA, almost everyone has been exposed PFAS. The Agency also acknowledges that PFAS are harmful. The list of potential ill effects is long and includes testicular cancer, kidney cancer, ulcerative colitis, high cholesterol, pregnancy-induced hypertension, thyroid disruption, hormonal changes, liver malfunction, obesity, immunotoxicity, lower birth weight and size, delayed puberty, decreased fertility, early menopause, reduced testosterone, prostate cancer, and ovarian cancer.

Health Advisories and Action Plan

The EPA has taken some actions to address PFAS. In 2016, the Agency issued nonregulatory lifetime health advisories of 70 parts per trillion (ppt) in drinking water for two PFAS—individual and combined perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS). That amount is equivalent to three drops of water in a full Olympic-size swimming pool. The health advisories recommended steps drinking water systems can take if the 70-ppt level is exceeded. These include testing for the source of contamination, advising the public, suggesting treatment, and providing alternative sources of drinking water. The advisories and related materials are available here.

Also, in February 2019, the Agency issued a PFAS action plan . In the plan, the Agency states that sometime in 2019 it will issue a “national drinking water regulatory determination” for PFOA and PFOS, which will “highlight key information gathered by the Agency and our partners to date and additional data needs.” The Agency did not indicate a target date for either a proposed MCL or a final rule.

State Reactions

This part of the action plan disappointed New Jersey, one state that has been aggressive in addressing PFAS in drinking water.

“The Trump Administration is leaving millions of Americans exposed to harmful chemicals for too long by choosing a drawn-out process that will delay establishing a federal MCL for PFAS,” the state’s Department of Environmental Quality (NJDEP) said in a statement.

Returning to Michigan, in February 2019, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) released the results of what it described as the nation’s first statewide study to measure PFAS in public drinking water supplies. The MDEQ reported that it sampled 1,461 public water systems and found that two had PFAS levels above 70 ppt and 62 had levels of 10 to 70 ppt. Testing did not detect any PFAS in 90 percent of the samples.

Apparently, the results of the MDEQ survey were sufficient to propel Whitmer into action. In addition to the formation of a science advisory work group, Whitmer directed the MDEQ to immediately file a Request for Rulemaking to establish enforceable MCLs for PFAS in drinking water supplies. The proposed regulations will be completed on an accelerated schedule with input from stakeholders by no later than October 1, 2019, said Whitmer.

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