Can you avoid PFAS in water, air, fish and consumer products? Here's what we know (2024)

Can you avoid PFAS in water, air, fish and consumer products? Here's what we know (1)
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  • Studies show PFAS lurks across Metro Detroit from local rivers to drinking water to everyday consumer products.
  • Detroiter Tenitia Purple Rudolf stopped selling fish from Detroit’s rivers due to PFAS concerns.
  • This guide includes the basics on what you need to know and what you can do.

This report is published in partnership with Metro Times and Outlier Media.

Tenitia Purple Rudolf has fished the Detroit, Huron, and Rouge rivers since she was nine. Fishing is important to her family, who migrated to Detroit from Mississippi before she was born.

She said she once made good money selling catfish and bluegill to Detroit seafood markets. But it’s been a few years since she sold her catch. She quit when she learned a family of chemicals, called PFAS, were likely in the fish she was catching. Rudolf didn’t want to expose her community to toxic substances and potential health problems.

Last year, Rudolf participated in a study conducted by the nonprofit Ecology Center to understand the extent of PFAS contamination in the fish in area waterways. The study found PFAS compounds in every one of the 60 bluegills, catfish, rock bass, and other fish by six local anglers, including Rudolf, caught.

“I never really thought about fish being toxic,” Rudolf said. “So these tests are important to see exactly what we eat. It’s a huge concern for me and mine.”

But PFAS are present in far more places than just fish. You can’t see, smell, or taste them, but they are everywhere, possibly lurking in the water you drink, the air you breathe, and the consumer goods you use daily.

Tony Spaniola, a metro Detroit-based attorney, became a PFAS advocate in 2012 after the chemicals were found to contaminate the fish, wildlife and water around Oscoda Lake in northern Michigan, where he has a cottage. The nearby Wurtsmith Air Force Base used PFAS foam for decades to fight fires and train firefighters.

Spaniola is concerned that people in metro Detroit may not know about PFAS, or if they do, they may have a false sense of security or think it’s only a problem in Michigan’s rural areas. This is particularly true since the Great Lakes Water Authority, which supplies most metro Detroiters with drinking water, said its water is PFAS-free.

Most peoples’ primary PFAS exposure risk comes from contaminated food and water. Companies that produce and use these compounds are often responsible for spills that persist in the environment and contaminate groundwater, wells, produce, and livestock.

Food packaging and indoor air also pose risks, with the FDA banning PFAS in food packaging and states introducing bans on PFAS in consumer products. Despite widespread exposure is crucial, reducing future exposure, especially for pregnant women.

One of the most well-known instances of PFAS contamination in Michigan includes Wolverine Worldwide, maker of Hush Puppies and Merrell shoes. The company’s irresponsible practices poisoned an entire town’s well water near Grand Rapids.

Source: Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy

The contamination can feel inescapable — from polluted household wells to consumer products we all use daily. Spaniola points out that metro Detroit is also home to dozens of PFAS-contaminated sites.

“We have airports that are notorious for PFAS contamination. We also have landfills,” he said. “We have the exposure sites and pathways right here in metro Detroit.”

What are PFAS? What do PFAS do to your body?

PFAS (per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances) are a group of man-made chemicals used in various industries worldwide since the 1940s. They persist in the environment and in our bodies, accumulating in tissues like the liver and kidneys.

They’re found in various consumer products that resist grease, water, and oil, such as non-stick cookware, water-repellent clothing, stain-resistant fabrics and carpets, food wrappings, cosmetics, and firefighting foams.

The compounds are implicated in a wide range of health issues — including metabolic syndrome, high cholesterol, liver damage, immune system impairment, and kidney and testicular cancers. They’ve also been linked to low birth weight, decreased growth, and developmental delays in infants and children. They’re suspected of disrupting hormones, impairing fertility, and even causing obesity.

And unless you’ve been living on the moon, you’ve most likely been exposed. One study found PFAS in the blood of 97% of Americans. Those numbers have dropped since the early 2000s as industry and governments have stopped producing and using some of the chemicals. However, new types of PFAS were created over that time period, making it challenging to track the true exposure level in the population.

One 2019 study showed Black women in Southeast Michigan aged 45-56 years had higher concentrations of PFOS (one particular type of PFAS) than white women. Another study found that PFAS exposure increased the risk for diabetes in middle-aged women, including in Southeast Michigan.

Can you avoid PFAS in water, air, fish and consumer products? Here's what we know (2)

Jackie Goodrich, a research associate professor of environmental health sciences and toxicologist at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health, studies the impact of PFAS compounds on human health in Southeast Michigan.

Her work has uncovered links between PFAS exposure and a higher risk for preeclampsia and other hypertension disorders during pregnancy, as well as adverse birth outcomes like lower birth weight. “That could impact babies’ health and development from that point onwards,” she said.

Goodrich also studied the impact on firefighters exposed to PFAS in firefighting foam on the job and found increased risks for various cancers due to epigenetic changes (changes in how genes are expressed). She said the findings are not restricted to firefighters but apply to anyone with a high degree of PFAS exposure.

“We have biological mechanisms that we need to operate in our body in a certain way, and when PFAS is throwing some of these things off, that can tip the balance towards impacting certain developmental processes in children or ultimately leading to cancer formation in adults,” she said.

The guidelines below outline actions you can take to protect yourself and your family against PFAS exposure in metro Detroit. But there’s only so much an individual can do without systemic action. Legislation to ban PFAS and legal action against chemical manufacturers is rising. To learn more about PFAS advocacy in Michigan, contact the Great Lakes PFAS Action Network.

Where are PFAS in Metro Detroit?

PFAS in Metro Detroit can be found just about everywhere. Here’s what you should know and what you can do about PFAS in fish, drinking water, air, and consumer products.

PFAS and drinking water

What to know: Drinking water, alongside food, is a major route of PFAS exposure. State data reveals PFAS contamination in public drinking water supplies in Southeast Michigan, with significant contamination found in Ann Arbor, which spends $250,000 annually to remove PFAS from the Huron River.

A Planet Detroit analysis of state data shows that public water systems in several metro Detroit communities have matched or exceeded new federal standards, necessitating further evaluation and potential future treatment.

Private wells and municipal water supplies that use groundwater are also at risk, with more than 165,000 wells in metro Detroit potentially affected. Experts say removing PFAS from drinking water nationwide will cost tens of billions of dollars.

What to do if you’re on a public water supply: The first step is determining whether the water you drink regularly contains PFAS. One place to start is with your local municipal drinking water report, which you can access on your municipality’s or water utility’s website.

These reports contain a wealth of information about all aspects of drinking water quality. However, the state does not require all public water suppliers to regularly test for PFAS — for example, schools or workplaces that are part of community water supplies need not perform their own sampling.

State officials are quick to point out, however, that they have conducted their own tests. Scott Dean, a spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy, notes that Michigan was the first state in the nation to test every public water system — from the Great Lakes Water Authority to schools and mobile home parks with 25 customers. That data is available online in map and table form.

What to do if you’re on well water: The EPA and experts recommend annual well testing for those with private drinking water wells to ensure there is no contamination. For guidance on how to get your well tested for PFAS, check EGLE’s website. The department emphasizes that people should use filters or alternative water sources if PFAS levels exceed recommended limits. You can find Michigan’s standards on the state’s website.

If your water contains PFAS: If you are concerned about PFAS in your tap water, you can filter your water using point-of-use or whole-house systems; however, the latter can be expensive. NSF International — an independent, accredited organization — tests and certifies products to ensure they meet public health and safety standards.

It certifies water filters’ effectiveness in reducing PFAS, specifically PFOS and PFOA (another form of PFAS), to below EPA health advisory levels.

Some pitcher filters can effectively reduce PFAS. You can find NSF-certified filters on the organization’s website.

Unfortunately, switching to bottled water may not be a safer alternative to your faucet; recent consumer testing has found PFAS in 39 of 101 unique bottled water brands sampled.

Unfortunately, switching to bottled water may not be a safer alternative to your faucet; recent consumer testing has found PFAS in 39 of 101 unique bottled water brands sampled.

PFAS and fish in Metro Detroit waterways

What to know: The state’s guidance said it’s safe to eat fish from the Detroit River and does not include a PFOS-related fish consumption advisory in its guidelines. But you don’t have to travel far from the city to find fishing spots with contamination.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services has issued “do not eat” fish consumption advisories for most fish species on a major portion of the Huron River downstream of North Wixom Road to where the river crosses I-275 in Wayne County due to PFAS concerns.

Can you avoid PFAS in water, air, fish and consumer products? Here's what we know (3)

Local industries, including Tribar Manufacturing, contaminated the river. Tribar has been cited for multiple violations of Michigan air and water regulations. These restrictions apply to Baseline Lake in Livingston County; Portage Lake, Barton Pond, Geddes Pond, Argo Pond in Washtenaw County; and Ford Lake in Wayne County.

Authorities have issued “do not eat” advisories for multiple fish species in other lakes, including Kent Lake in Oakland County, Gallagher Lake in Livingston County and Belleville Lake in Wayne County. Sunfish on the lower and main branches of the Rouge River are off-limits in Wayne County. Other bodies of water have limited consumption advisories, meaning you should not eat the fish more often than advised to avoid high exposure.

The Ecology Center’s study, led last year by anglers like Tenitia Purple Rudolf, found high levels of PFAS in fish across the Huron and Rouge rivers. Most of the six fish caught by community anglers exceeded daily consumption limits for PFOS, one of the many PFAS compounds.

Daniel Brown, a watershed planner for the Huron River Watershed Council, said PFAS is changing how people in and around Detroit eat and catch fish, especially for communities that rely on fish from local rivers for sustenance.

“In most places in Southeast Michigan, people rely on fish as a vital source of nutrition,” Brown said. “And those are typically people who live on the margins. They don’t have really any disposable income. They don’t have a lot of options not to eat fish if they’re going to get the nutrition that fish provide.”

What to do when catching and preparing fish: Anglers should regularly check the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) fish consumption guidelines. These guidelines provide updated information on which fish species and water bodies have been found to have high PFAS levels. Adhere to the recommended limits on fish consumption provided by MDHHS. They consider the type of fish and the water body it comes from, offering specific guidelines to minimize PFAS exposure.

Some fish species tend to accumulate fewer PFAS. Opt for fish known to have lower PFAS levels, such as rainbow trout and sunfish (unless there is a specific advisory for that species in a particular body of water). Avoid fish that are more likely to be contaminated, such as carp and bass from certain water bodies.

Diversifying your diet is also important. Incorporating a variety of protein sources into your diet, reducing the frequency of fish consumption, and including other healthy sources of proteins and fats like poultry, beans, oils, seeds, and nuts can help limit your overall PFAS intake.

PFAS in the air

What to know about PFAs in the air (and the rain): PFAS in Metro Detroit also lurk in the air, where they are carried to the ground via rain. The compounds have been found across the Great Lakes and in remote areas of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

The Ecology Center sampled rainwater in October 2023 in Southwest Detroit, Dearborn and Ann Arbor, and found a range of PFAS compounds, including high levels of the PFAS compound trifluoroacetic acid, a product of common air conditioning refrigerants. The compound is considered an ultra-short-chain PFAS that can cause skin, eye and lung irritation.

What to do: According to Rainer Lohmann, a professor of oceanography at the University of Rhode Island who studies PFAS in the atmosphere, rain and air are not the exposure pathway most people should be worried about.

“Of all the concerns for PFAS, [air] is not the one I would lose sleep over,” Lohmann said. “For a typical average human, drinking water is roughly 20% of the exposure to PFAS. That leaves 80% left and most of that is basically through food choices you make.”

Lohmann said absorption through the skin from cosmetics and inhaling indoor air pollutants like dust and volatile organic compounds from plastics and consumer products are likely more significant exposure routes than outdoor air.

“Indoor air exposure is much, much worse than outdoor, so I wouldn't stop breathing in Detroit, and same for any other big city,” Lohmann said.

EGLE has developed health-based standards for PFAS compounds in outdoor air and implemented a PFAS air monitoring study across the state in cooperation with Lohmann. The study detected PFAS in the air across dozens of sites, including in Dearborn, Ypsilanti Detroit, and Port Huron.

Very little official guidance exists about protecting yourself from PFAS in the air. Strategies like increasing indoor air circulation and using an air filter while avoiding tracking dirt and dust indoors may help.

PFAS and consumer products

What to know: Since PFAS are everywhere, you may not be able to completely avoid them in consumer products. With some vigilance, you may be able to reduce your exposure. Look for labels that indicate products are PFAS-free.

What to do: Many manufacturers now offer alternatives in categories such as cookware, clothing and cosmetics. Read labels and research products. Avoid items that do not clearly state they are free of PFAS or related chemicals. Support companies and brands that are committed to eliminating PFAS from their products. Encourage others to do the same and promote consumer awareness.

Beyond these individual actions, consumers can advocate for laws to remove PFAS from consumer products. In addition to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s ban on PFAS in food packaging, more states are taking action to ban PFAS in various consumer products. In April, Michigan lawmakers introduced a bill that would ban PFAS compounds in household products and firefighting foam.

Reporting contributed by Britny Cordera.

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that removing fat and skin from fish could help reduce PFAS exposure. This is true for some contaminants, like PCBs. However, research finds that PFAS is absorbed in all tissues in fish, and cooking fish does not remove PFAS. Limiting consumption and following fish advisories is the best way to reduce exposure from fish.

Can you avoid PFAS in water, air, fish and consumer products? Here's what we know (2024)
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