In PFAS, grassroots group sees a familiar threat

Six years ago, Anthony Spaniola learned that hazardous PFAS compounds had contaminated an underground aquifer that provides drinking water to his family’s lakefront cottage in northern Michigan. For him, that troubling news and the government’s sluggish response to the problem were eerily familiar.

PFAS is an abbreviation for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, a group of synthetic chemicals used widely in household products, industrial processes and firefighting foam; some are hazardous. The chemicals have been detected in communities across the United States and globally — in lakes, rivers, drinking water supplies and some types of food.

Anthony Spaniola

“In 2016, I was sitting with my father at a meeting where state officials were explaining this PFAS problem in our lake and drinking water,” Spaniola said, “and I’m thinking to myself, ‘This is déjà vu.’”

Spaniola said the PFAS crisis is reminiscent of another environmental nightmare he and his family fought to rectify in the 1970s: Michigan’s PBB crisis. In 1973, the accidental addition of polybrominated biphenyl (PBB) compounds into animal feed poisoned livestock across Michigan.

At the time, those synthetic chemicals were used as fire retardants in a variety of plastic products. Adding PBBs to livestock feed contaminated part of Michigan’s food chain and left traces of the toxins in Michiganders who consumed tainted meat or dairy products.

During the PBB crisis, a much younger Spaniola worked with his father — who was then a state representative — on legislation that regulated PBB in Michigan and compensated farmers who had to kill livestock poisoned during the ordeal. As bad as the PBB disaster was, Spaniola believes the PFAS crisis is worse.

“PBB affected people and livestock in Michigan. PFAS is a global problem, there are thousands of PFAS compounds, and they are still used worldwide in many applications,” said Spaniola, who co-chairs the Great Lakes PFAS Action Network. “The breadth of human exposure to these chemicals is mind-boggling.”

This map, produced by the Michigan Department of Energy, Great Lakes and Environment, shows the 205 sites in Michigan contaminated with PFAS compounds. There are over 2,800 known contamination sites nationwide.
Photo: courtesy of the Michigan Department of Energy, Great Lakes and Environment

There are over 2,800 known sites of PFAS contamination nationally, but researchers believe that figure will swell to 58,000 as more areas are investigated. Michigan has 205 PFAS pollution sites, but government officials suspect there are another 11,000 contaminated sites that have yet to be identified. Nearly 2 million Michiganders have been exposed to PFAS compounds via drinking water, according to state data.

The Great Lakes PFAS Action Network aims to rally communities across the region to press for change on several fronts: reducing the use of PFAS compounds; preventing new cases of PFAS contamination; bringing about faster cleanups at known contamination sites; ensuring that communities affected by the contaminants are made whole financially; and securing long-term medical monitoring for people exposed to the chemicals.

The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation has granted $325,000 to support the Ecology Center, a Michigan-based group coordinating the work of the Great Lakes PFAS Action Network. The network is already having an impact, said Melanie Moore, associate program officer for Mott’s Environment team.

“Solving the PFAS crisis is a daunting challenge, but we know from experience that community-based groups can be very effective at driving change,” Moore said. “We’re encouraged by the steps that are already being taken to protect communities from environmental hazards in their drinking water.”

Michigan recently adopted some of the nation’s strictest drinking water standards for certain PFAS compounds, and federal officials are now considering similar regulations. Members of the Great Lakes PFAS Action Network advocated for the standards at both levels.

The network has generated extensive media coverage of PFAS issues affecting communities across Michigan. Its members also advocated for an executive order from Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, which directed state agencies to avoid buying products containing PFAS when alternatives are available, said Rebecca Meuninck, deputy director of the Ecology Center.

The Ecology Center and other Mott grantees provide a variety of technical support for the Great Lakes PFAS Action Network. “We believe this mix of community members and organizations with scientific, legal and organizing expertise can work together effectively to inform policy,” Meuninck said.

PFAS contamination of soils, lakes and rivers in parts of Michigan have prompted warnings against eating wildlife and fish from those areas.
Photo: Anthony Spaniola

Network members played a role in the creation of a bipartisan Congressional PFAS Task Force, which is addressing the PFAS problem in a variety of ways. The task force is pressing federal agencies to clean up PFAS contamination at military bases across the U.S. and securing funds for that work. For decades, many military bases used firefighting foam laced with PFAS compounds, which contaminated soil, groundwater and surface waters.

State officials have warned Michigan residents to avoid foam on lakes and rivers, because it may contain PFAS compounds.
Photo: Anthony Spaniola

The congressional task force, which is co-chaired by U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee of Flint, recently secured $13 million in federal funding to begin addressing PFAS contamination at the Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Oscoda, Michigan. PFAS compounds at that site have contaminated a stretch of the nearby Au Sable River, Van Etten Lake and drinking water wells in some homes around that lake. The cost for remediation is estimated at $250 million.

Erica Bloom, director of the Ecology Center’s toxics campaign, said it is easy to get overwhelmed and demoralized by the scope of the PFAS problem. She said Spaniola and others like him, who spend countless hours working on PFAS issues and have compelling stories to tell, inspire her to keep advocating for change.

“I find a lot of hope in the community members we work with,” Bloom said. “They’ve been impacted directly by PFAS contamination. Some have lost loved ones to cancer, others have had their property values impacted by this — and they’re determined to make a change.”

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