“A Piece of the Puzzle”: Grand Rapids event addresses growing PFAS concerns

This article is a three-part story about understanding and mitigating environmental health risks threatening Michigan and its residents as identified in the recently released Tackling Environmental Health Threats report. It is made possible with funding from the University Research Corridor.

In the last few years, researchers have been uncovering some alarming facts about per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, better known as PFAS. 

Recent data collected by experts across several fields has only just begun to paint a picture of how dangerous these substances can be to human health and to our environment. And many of Michigan’s water sources already contain a concerning amount of what has been dubbed “the forever chemical.”

Now, Michigan researchers from the University Research Corridor and policymakers are coming together to address the widespread issue of PFAS contamination throughout the state.

According to the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE), PFAS contamination may be present in more than 11,300 locations statewide, and regulators have identified more than 160 locations across Michigan with PFAS levels above the Environmental Protection Agency’s health limit for groundwater.

In late April, Michigan’s University Research Corridor (URC) – an alliance comprised of Michigan State University (MSU), the University of Michigan (U-M), and Wayne State University (WSU)  – held a community conversation on the growing threat of PFAS at MSU’s Grand Rapids Innovation Park. Between 2015 and 2019, URC universities were awarded over half a billion dollars to conduct environmental health research across over 1,500 projects.

The event was the second in URC’s ongoing Hidden Health Threats tour, which addresses a number of environmental and infrastructure concerns across the state by convening a variety of URC researchers and local leaders to address issues such as flooding, PFAS, and microplastic contamination.

“Michigan has some of the highest PFAS levels in the nation, and many of the state’s streams, rivers, lakes, and drinking water have been contaminated by these ‘forever chemicals,’” said Britany Affolter-Caine, URC executive director. “Researchers at URC universities are laser-focused on solving these challenges, learning from practitioners in the field and sharing what they know with lawmakers, community leaders, and the public.”

Speakers invited to the Grand Rapids event included WSU School of Medicine assistant professor Rodrigo Fernandez-Valdivia, MSU Center for PFAS Research director and ecotoxicologist Cheryl Murphy, Fraunhofer Center Midwest electrochemist Suzanne Witt, and state Sens. Mark Huizenga and Winnie Brinks

PFAS have become omnipresent over the years due to their water-, grease-, and stain-resistant properties. From fast-food wrappers, to raincoats, to the foam used by firefighters, they can be found just about everywhere. But their useful properties have a downside: PFAS degrade at a very slow rate and can be extremely difficult to get rid of once they have contaminated a water source, food source, or even the human body.

“We know that it's become ubiquitous around the world,” said Sen. Brinks in her opening remarks. “We know that it's incredibly persistent in our environment as well as in our bodies and the bodies of other creatures and that it can cause serious harm to health and to our ecosystem.”

In April, the University Research Center brought Michigan researchers and policymakers together at the MSU Grand Rapids Research Center to address the issue of PFAS contamination.
The senator noted several areas of concern in Michigan, including the Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Oscoda, where the long-term use of aqueous film-forming foam during fire training scenarios has resulted in serious groundwater contamination. Other affected communities include Parchment, nearby Cooper Township, and Ann Arbor.

Murphy discussed the importance of a multi-framework approach to match the many threats that PFAS represents and the many communities it has already affected. 

“We can’t wait decades to figure out all the effects PFAS is having,” said Murphy. “We have to determine what they are quickly and develop technologies for assessing the toxicity in a more efficient way. We need to be able to measure it everywhere, and we also need to look at how it is getting into our food and our water.”

MSU’s Center for PFAS Research, she explained, has six primary research focus areas being worked on by researchers from a variety of fields and academic backgrounds. The focus areas are Health Impacts; Environmental Monitoring and Modeling, Discovery and Measurement; Agricultural Impacts, Communication and Governance; and Remediation and Development of Alternatives. 

Witt, representing applied research nonprofit Fraunhofer USA Center Midwest, which works in partnership with MSU, discussed the organization’s latest research into a new technology that uses boron-doped diamond plates to break down PFAS molecules through a process known as electrochemical oxidization.

“Diamonds are a really robust material,” said Witt. “Not a lot of materials can actually withstand these really harsh treatment conditions and high energies that we need to break down PFAS.”

Witt emphasized that further research on separating PFAS out of large bodies of water, as well as funding, would be crucial in order to move forward with Fraunhofer’s new PFAS amelioration method. 

“We work on the degradation part, but that's really heavily dependent on people that are working on toxicology studies and also PFAS detection,” noted Witt. “It’s a joint effort of people with all of these different expertises getting together and working on it.”

Fernandez-Valdivia discussed some of the distressing findings he and his team found when researching the effects PFAS can have on physical health. He and his laboratory in the WSU Medical School’s Pathology Department discovered a significant association between PFAS exposure and the development of certain types of cancer. Fernandez-Valdivia’s initial findings show a 46% and 20% increase in breast and lung cancer respectively in communities that were exposed to PFAS.

“One of the things that’s important to recognize is that the chemical nature of these compounds is so special in that they do not degrade,” he noted. “Once you get exposed, they accumulate and stay within you.”

The researchers also fielded questions from community members and policymakers in attendance on funding, urgency, and further research, leading to a larger discussion on the necessity of a collaborative, large-scale response. 

“We’re not solving the problem immediately, but we’re bringing everyone who has a piece of a larger puzzle together,” said Affolter-Caine. “We need to bridge the gap between research and practice so we have a much better chance going forward, and that’s exactly what these conversations are going to do.”

Both researchers and lawmakers agreed.

“I think the more people that you have in the room talking about the issue, the better you're able to come to some solutions on the best way to proceed,” noted Murphy. “It's very helpful. I find that it's good to see where everybody's coming from and hear about the constraints that everybody's faced when dealing with these issues.”

“I think that events like this, where we were able to talk with leading researchers in their fields, are just incredibly helpful for policymakers,” added Sen. Brinks. “It helps us understand what's possible, and it helps us understand the science a little better. 

“Most legislators are not scientists. We have a steep learning curve when things get complicated when it comes to pollutants and contaminants,” she said. “So it really is helpful for us to, both to have a much better understanding and to help inform where we can intervene so we can give them dollars to study PFAS.”