What is PFOS? What is PFOA? What are per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS)?
PFOS and PFOA stand for perfluorooctane sulfonate and perfluorooctanoic acid, respectively. Both are fluorinated organic chemicals, part of a larger family of compounds referred to as perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), are a group of chemicals that are resistant to heat, water, and oil. PFAS have been classified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as an emerging contaminant on the national landscape. PFAS have been around since the 1950s, but we didn’t know a lot about their effects until the early 2000s, when scientists began releasing data on PFAS health impacts and their persistence in the environment. For decades, they have been used in many industrial applications and consumer products such as carpeting, waterproof clothing, upholstery, food paper wrappings, fire-fighting foams, and metal plating. They are still used today. PFAS have been found at low levels both in the environment and in blood samples of the general U.S. population. These PFAS chemicals are persistent, which means they do not break down in the environment. They also bioaccumulate, meaning the amount builds up over time in the blood and organs.
Is PFAS in Ann Arbor’s Drinking Water?
Samples collected by the City and analyzed by an independent lab each month have shown PFAS in Ann Arbor drinking water at levels significantly below the Health Advisory Level established by Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and adopted by the State of Michigan. The City continues to monitor for PFAS compounds and remains committed to providing safe drinking water that complies or exceeds all regulatory guidelines.
In the fall of 2018, PFAS
sampling data showed a rise in PFAS concentrations, in the Huron River and
in the City’s drinking water. The rise was met with subsequent declines in PFAS concentrations. The City continues to move forward on innovations to remove
these chemicals and have partnered with other utilities, government agencies
and university research departments to explore new technologies to address
these emerging contaminants.
What are we doing to remove PFAS from drinking water?
Currently, granular activated carbon (GAC) filtration is the best available technology for removing PFAS in drinking water. The City has GAC filters, and has been piloting a new type of carbon in several of its filters since November 2017. The new technology was successful at removing PFOS and PFOA to non-detectable levels during the first nine months following installation. Due to this success, in September 2018 City Council approved a proposal to replace all of the older carbon in the City's filters with the new type of carbon in fiscal year 2019. After this project is completed, the city anticipates that concentrations of PFOS and PFOA will be reliably less than 10 ppt. The additional cost to replace the GAC in the filters will be approximately $850,000. In addition, the City continues to voluntarily test for PFAS chemicals in the drinking water on a monthly basis.
In 2018, the city was awarded a grant by The Water Research Foundation to continue to study and refine techniques to remove PFAS compounds from drinking water. The city is currently testing new filters prior to full-scale implementation. Detailed testing plans are currently being developed and should be finalized in early 2019. This research project is expected to conclude in 2021.
The MDEQ is conducting ongoing sampling along the Huron River and is actively working to identify sources of PFAS in the Huron River watershed. In the fall of 2018, MDEQ identified one major source of PFAS to the Huron River: TriBar Manufacturing, which sends wastewater to the Wixom Wastewater Treatment Plant (WWTP), where the water is treated and discharged to a tributary to the Huron River. Since its identification as a significant source of PFAS to the Huron River, TriBar has added GAC treatment to remove PFAS from its wastewater, and it is anticipated that PFAS concentrations in the Wixom WWTP discharge to the Huron River will begin to decrease as a result. Because these compounds can be difficult to remove from water, eliminating the source (if possible) is typically more cost effective than treatment.
Does Ann Arbor test drinking water for PFAS?
The City currently sends samples from the intakes at Barton Pond and finished drinking water to be measured for PFAS each month. PFAS are not reactive, and concentrations in a homeowner’s drinking water will be the same as the concentration leaving the plant.
Because the PFAS concentration does not change between the plant and a homeowner’s home, then the City will not pay to test individual homeowner’s drinking water for PFAS. The City sends its samples to a commercial lab for PFAS analysis because it does not have the capability to measure PFAS on site. Analysis for PFAS requires specialized equipment, and the method is very complex.
Can PFAS affect people’s health?
Some scientific studies suggest that certain PFAS may affect different systems in the body if ingested over periods of time. Although more research is needed, some studies have linked higher levels of PFAS in people’s blood to health impacts such as:
- affect growth, learning, and behavior of infants and older children
- lower a woman’s chance of getting pregnant
- interfere with the body’s natural hormones
- increase cholesterol levels
- affect the immune system and
- increase the risk of certain types of cancer
At this time, scientists are still learning about the health effects of exposures to mixtures of PFAS. If you are concerned about exposure to PFAS in your drinking water, please contact the Ann Arbor Water Treatment Plant at 734.994.2840 or consult the City’s Annual Water Quality Report.
Is there a risk to swimming or bathing in water with PFAS?
You may bathe and swim in water containing PFAS. PFAS do not easily absorb into the skin. It is safe to bathe, as well as do your laundry and household cleaning. It is also safe to swim in and use recreationally. Getting water with PFAS on your skin will not harm you.
What about recent reports of PFAS in fish and foam from the Huron River?
The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) has issued an expanded ‘Do Not Eat’ fish advisory for all fish in the Huron River in Livingston, Oakland, Washtenaw, Wayne, and Monroe Counties.
For current guidelines relating to PFAS fish contamination, visit Michigan.gov/pfasresponse. For more information about the Eat Safe Fish guidelines, visit Michigan.gov/eatsafefish.
In addition, the health department reminds users to avoid swallowing foam on the river. It noted:
"It is recommended that visitors to the Huron River avoid swallowing foam on the water during recreational activities, though an accidental swallow of water is not considered a health concern. Residents are also encouraged to wash their hands after touching foam to avoid swallowing PFAS that might be on your hands. Skin contact with the foam or water is not considered a health concern because current science indicates that PFAS do not move easily through the skin.
Additionally, the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development recommends that people not allow their pets – especially dogs – to come into contact with or swallow the foam. Dogs can potentially swallow foam collected in their fur when grooming themselves. Dogs should be thoroughly rinsed off with fresh water after contact with foamy water."
Does the City's Fire Department use firefighting foam with PFAS in it?
In the past, like many fire departments, the Ann Arbor Fire Department (AAFD) maintained a stock of firefighting foam that contained PFAS chemicals and was used for fighting flammable liquid fires such as gasoline, oil and other hydrocarbons.
In the fall of 2018, the AA FD agreed to immediately halt use of this type of foam for training purposes and to seek alternative options for fighting such fires. In October of 2018, the AAFD purchased foam that is free of PFAS. The old foam was disposed of properly via a regulated waste disposal company.
To learn more about PFAS and what you can do to prevent being exposed or using products with PFAS, here a few good resources:
Michigan Department of Health and Human Service (MDHHS) Huron River ‘Do Not Eat Fish’ Consumption Advisory
Environmental Protection Agency PFAS Basic Information
Center for Disease Control/Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (CDC/ATSDR) has health information, exposure, and links to additional resources
Washtenaw County Health Department Environmental Health staff 734.222.3800.
Residents can also contact the State’s Environmental Assistance Center by phone at 800.662.9278.