Over the past few years, Michiganders have become all too familiar with a class of chemicals known as per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances or PFAS. They’re toxic chemicals that have been found in water and land across the state.
The chemicals can be found in things like firefighting foam, non-stick cookware, and water and stain-resistant products.
But PFAS are chemicals that don’t really break down, so they can remain in the environment and in people for a long time.
Robin Erb of Bridge Magazine recently wrote about the state’s efforts to research the long-term effects PFAS and why some residents are slow to aid in the research.
“We don’t know at what point the levels are dangerous. Is there a safe amount of PFAS that we can tolerate?" Erb says. "When they do become damaging, how do they cause that damage and are we affected differently depending on our age, or our race, or our gender?”
To help answer those questions, the state chose to focus on residents of Kent County that have been exposed to high levels of PFAS. A local shoe company dumped industrial waste from its production plant into the groundwater for decades. PFAS were detected in private water wells in northern Kent County in 2017, but getting those residents to participate in the study has not been easy.
“It’s been surprising,” says Erb. “There’s been a real reluctance to be involved.”
The state was hoping for 800 participants in the assessment but Erb says just 427 people have responded.
“Residents have been living with this for two and a half years and I think there’s just a sense of ‘we can’t take it anymore,’” she says.
Erb says 427 people may not be enough for the state to draw any sort of conclusions.