More than 60 drinking water systems in Michigan sampled last year had measurable levels of a class of long-lasting and highly toxic chemicals linked to cancer and a variety of other illnesses, state officials said Monday.
The Department of Environmental Quality released data from a statewide effort to determine the extent of drinking water contamination from perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known collectively as PFAS, which increasingly have turned up in public water supplies and private wells around the U.S. They are used in firefighting foam, nonstick pots and pans, water-repellent clothing and many other household and personal items.
The Michigan agency said it oversaw sampling of 1,114 public water systems and 17 operated by tribes. Also tested were supplies at 461 schools and 168 child care and Head Start providers that operate their own wells.
Only two — the city of Parchment and Robinson Elementary School near Grand Haven — had PFAS levels above 70 parts per trillion, that point at which the state requires cleanups of groundwater used for drinking. The threshold is based on a nonbinding U.S. Environmental Protection Agency health advisory that critics, including environmental advocates and some members of Congress, consider weak.
Parchment was connected to Kalamazoo's municipal water system last August, while the Robinson school has been provided bottled water and is planning to install at carbon filtration mechanism this year.
An additional 62 systems had PFAS levels of 10 to 70 ppt, according to the DEQ. Director Liesl Clark said the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team, a multi-agency group, would continue quarterly monitoring of systems with levels of 10 ppt or higher.
"Protecting the public remains our top priority," Clark said, adding that the team "will continue to work with communities with detections of PFAS in their water to help them investigate and take action to drive down exposure levels."
The 2018 testing found an additional 115 water systems with trace levels of the chemicals.
About 75 percent of Michigan's drinking water comes from public systems. The DEQ testing did not include private residential wells.
Agencies are investigating more than 40 sites with known sources of PFAS contamination, including areas near military installations and industrial landfills.
The EPA this month announced plans to consider setting nationwide limits on the chemicals in drinking water. But environmentalists said Michigan's test results showed it should have its own standard. A bill that would designate a 5 ppt ceiling was introduced in the Legislature but hasn't gotten a vote.
"We can't settle for just being 'first in the nation' in testing," said Bob Allison, director of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters. "We should be first in the nation in tackling this problem head-on."
A December report by a science advisory team said Michigan's groundwater PFAS standard might not be strong enough but didn't recommend a specific level.