Ohio non-profit seeks to put a dent in Michigan's PFAS problems

"forever chemicals" are in everything from food packaging to cookware
Posted at 5:45 AM, May 06, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-07 11:39:32-04

DETROIT (WXYZ) — They're known commonly as "forever chemicals" and they're continuing to plague communities around the country and here in metro Detroit.

Just this week the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) put out a new "Do Not Eat" advisory for certain fish in the Rouge River, due to PFAS/PFOS contamination.

Bluegill and sunfish caught in the Lower Branch of the Rouge River and the Main Branch of the Rouge River from the Ford Estate Dam to the Detroit River were analyzed and found to have "high levels of perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), a type of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substance (PFAS)," MDHHS said in it's May 2 advisory.

These man-made chemicals are in water, air, fish, and soil across the country; PFAS has been reported in all 50 states.

Michigan currently regulates seven PFAS compounds found in drinking water to try and keep contamination at bay. But part of the challenge is that there are thousands of these chemicals and they're often hard to detect and even harder to destroy.

“I’ve got a filter. I run the filtered water and I boil my water every day," said Theresa Landrum, a lifelong southwest Detroiter who lives not far from big industry sites like Marathon.

She's been boiling her drinking water since 2007. It's a decision she'd made on her own, not trusting what's coming out of the faucet.

“I am a cancer survivor. My mother and father both had cancer. My sister had cancer, my aunt had cancer," Landrum told Action News.

Those illnesses are ones Landrum links to environmental pollution, including PFAS.

“A few years ago, right here up on Schaefer Highway, there was PFAS bubbling up, foam just rolling out," Landrum recalled.

She's become outspoken about the need for local, state, and federal agencies to better address environmental pollution, particularly in communities of color.

Battelle scientist utilizing the PFAS Annihilator

“I didn’t become an activist out of career choice. I was forced into it out of necessity," Landrum said.

She's a member of the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team, or M-PART. She works to inform state agencies like the Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) about residents' concerns. Right now she's working on improving notifications for when PFAS/PFOS is known or suspected.

Landrum is also passionate about more accountability for legacy polluters.

“And we have this fox guarding the hen house system across America where industries do self reporting to our government. That should be changed," she said.

Recently, a team of scientists from Battelle, a scientific non-profit in Columbus, Ohio traveled to west Michigan along with a tool called the PFAS Annihilator; named for its chief mission.

“It breaks the C-F [Carbon-fluorine] and will completely destroy the PFAS," explained Battelle's PFAS program manager, Amy Dindal.

It would be a game changer in the fight against these toxic chemicals, linked to health issues in both humans and animals.

Battelle is working with Heritage-Crystal Clean, Inc., a waste management company out of Grand Rapids to bring its technology to scale.

In short, Battelle's system uses a lot of heat and pressure to destroy PFAS on site in a waste management/water treatment setting, so that clean water can be pumped out. The first pilot was a success, Dindal told Action News.

“We have a second one that’s in construction right now and we have multiple units that are in construction to be done in 2023," Dindal said.

More units are being built now to be deployed in the coming months.

Theresa Landrum speaks with Jenn Schanz in southwest Detroit

Landrum has no affiliation with Battelle, but said if the technology proves successful it would have a large impact in communities like hers.

"Then we could be able to assure the people that turn on that tap that their water is safe," she said.

The results of a new PFAS study from Western Michigan University only sheds more light on this problem, and how difficult it is to address.

The study, lead by Dr. Matt Reeves, looks at PFAS cycling in Michigan wastewater treatment plants. One of the highlights from that study points to PFAS being detected in greater quantities from wastewater outflow; meaning its returning to our rivers and lakes once it's pumped out. Michigan's wastewater treatment facilities aren't required to treat for PFAS.

The research suggests PFAS compounds are becoming detectable once they're treated, rather than the plants introducing more toxic chemicals. The data collected also points to how much even the experts are still learning about these chemicals, which have been widely used since at least the 1950s.

Landrum is frustrated; you can hear it in her voice when she talks about a problem she's been living for years.

“I’m often asked, why do you stay? The question is, why should leave? This is my home," she said. "Why should we feel like we have to uproot our life because we're being polluted?"

Click here to learn more about MI-PART