Environmentalists push to ban controversial chemical

PFAS are regulated in drinking water, but not in soil or biosolids.
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LANSING — The recent discovery of a dangerous family of chemicals in Michigan cattle has a statewide environmental group renewing its efforts to ban the controversial substance.

The chemicals are called per- or polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS for short. You may have heard of the more common chemicals in this family, such as those used to make nonstick cookware.

In Michigan, PFAS are regulated in drinking water, but not in soil or biosolids, said Megan Tinsley, water policy director for the Michigan Environmental Council, which advocates for environmental policies.

Biosolids, colloquially known as biosludge, refers to the residue left over from waste that’s been treated at a wastewater treatment plant, Tinsley said.

It can be used as an effective fertilizer rather than just sending it to landfills. When crops that cows eat are fertilized with biosludge, the PFAS builds up in their bodies and can contaminate the beef, Tinsley said. Then people who eat the beef can become adversely affected.

The idea of using biosludge as fertilizer is good in theory, “but obviously when you’ve got waste that is contaminated with PFAS, it is a big environmental problem,” Tinsley said.

Another problem that stems from such use of biosludge is known as legacy farm contamination: When biosolids are spread on the ground for some time, PFAS levels may slowly accumulate in the soil, Tinsley said.

“Testing the soil could help us determine where we should no longer apply any sort of biosolids,” Tinsley said, “and it would give us more information as to where we should look further into testing crops. Having a greater network of soil testing can help us look for this type of problem that was just discovered.”

The environmental council also advocates for a cumulative standard for PFAS regulations, Tinsley said.

“There’s over 4,000 chemicals in this group of chemicals that we call PFAS, and the state has developed drinking water standards for seven,” she said.

The chemicals have different names but function similarly as a group, she said, and the council wants the state to set drinking water standards for the entire class of PFAS.

Labeling products without PFAS as PFAS-free also would help combat the contamination, Tinsley said.

Using labels similar to those on non-GMO food, consumers could make informed decisions and make sure that their health isn’t at risk from the chemicals, Tinsley said.

“But we don’t have the laws in place to require that,” she said.

American scientist Roy Plunkett discovered PFAS in the 1930s, and they’ve been used extensively in the U.S. since the 1940s, said Wei Zhang, the associate department chair at Michigan State University’s Department of Plant, Soil and Microbial Sciences.

PFAS also are found in paints, shampoos, firefighting foam, fast food packaging, pesticides and other products, Zhang said. And they didn’t stop there.

“Eventually they found their way to humans,” Zhang said.

Prolonged exposure is a public health risk, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

PFAS can cause attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and delay puberty when fetuses and infants are exposed to it. It also causes other health problems, such as kidney disease and altered liver function in non-pregnant adults and preterm birth in pregnant women, Zhang said.

Tinsley said, “We’ve done a really good job of looking for PFAS in the environment, and I think we’re ahead of the curve when it comes to detecting it and trying to address it when it comes to drinking water.”

But some other states have done more by banning them in food packaging, another common source of exposure, Tinsley said.

“A lot of food packaging products like takeout containers and the paper that sandwiches are wrapped in can contain PFAS,” Tinsley said.

She said that “there are certainly actions that we could be taking in Michigan that we have not yet,” including legislation that would more tightly regulate the chemicals.

Banning PFAS entirely also is part of the solution, Tinsley said, but bans take time and political willpower, especially with 4,700 chemicals in the PFAS family.

“But if you remove something that’s used in a lot of products, that’s where we’ll start to run into a lot of opposition,” she said. “That’s why we think that’s part of the solution, but we have to be doing other things in the meantime.”

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