Former Michigan chief medical officer questions federal drinking water guideline

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Federal drinking water guidelines for a class of harmful chemicals now under national scrutiny may not be strict enough to protect human health, according to Dr. Eden Wells, Michigan’s former chief medical officer.

Eden Wells

Even if enforced under law, the advisory level “may not be low enough,” Wells said Thursday at a joint hearing of the state House Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation and Natural Resources and Environmental Quality Appropriations Subcommittee.

Her comments come after a congressional hearing this week. Several legislators, including U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Flint), questioned whether the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) advisory drinking water limit is low enough to protect people from a suite of about 5,000 per- and polyfluoroalkyl chemicals, known as PFAS.

Wells testified at the Legislature’s second-ever committee hearing on PFAS.

The EPA currently has a nonbinding health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion for two of the most common chemicals in that class — PFOA and PFOS. Environmentalists have joined a bipartisan group of U.S. House members in criticizing federal regulators for acting too slowly on making the guideline legally enforceable.

A Department of Environmental contractor checks for PFAS contamination in 2017.

The chemicals are found in items like nonstick pans, fast food wrappers, cosmetics and legacy pollution, have been linked to cancer and other health problems and are spurring national concern.

But as that conversation lingers, Wells now joins a chorus of health expert opinion — including a report produced by a state PFAS task force started by former Gov. Rick Snyder — who question whether the threshold is low enough.

Wells also is known for being charged by former Attorney General Bill Schuette’s office with involuntary manslaughter related to the Flint water crisis and is still a member of that state task force.

Following the charges, Wells was hired in December as Michigan’s “population health physician” by the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). She is no longer the state’s chief medical officer.

She testified in a House committee this morning, along with with Department of Environmental Quality Director Liesl Clark and Steven Sliver, director of the Michigan PFAS Response Team (MPART).

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Asked later by the Michigan Advance what level may be more protective of health, Wells said mounting evidence is showing reason to make a stricter rule.

“Based on science that’s being accumulated over the last few years and our scientific advisory panel … there’s some understanding now that there may be impacts of PFAS chemicals that can cause health outcomes perhaps at smaller levels, below 70,” Wells said. “Now, is it absolutely known what those are yet? No. That’s the problem. So that makes it difficult.”

Wells said because so many questions remain, it’s hard to know what the state should adopt as a regulatory level.

“I don’t think anybody in the nation’s been able to answer that,” she said.

State results have shown PFOS and PFOA levels below 70 ppt in every drinking water system except Parchment, where levels were found more than 20 times higher than the federal health guideline, spurring water treatment.

But the state has found 62 other water supplies with a PFOA or PFOS concentration between 10 ppt and 70 ppt, Sliver testified during the Thursday committee hearing.

Some health and environment experts, including former Michigan Environmental Council (MEC) Director James Clift, have argued the state should set an enforceable level between 7 and 15 ppt. Clift left the MEC in February to become senior Great Lakes advisor to Clark in the DEQ.

Environmental contractors sample the groundwater from former fire training area #2 to check for PFAS at former Wurtsmith Air Force Base, Michigan | Breanne Humphreys, Air Force

State Sen. Winnie Brinks (D-Grand Rapids) has introduced Senate Bill 14 that sets maximum contaminant levels at 5 ppt.  

Sliver told lawmakers that the 62 water systems with levels above that suggestion but below the federal guideline supply drinking water to about 500,000 Michigan residents. He said MPART and the DEQ will begin monitoring their drinking water quarterly.

“We’ve probably got the best database of any state in the country to help direct our next steps,” Sliver said.

Last year, the Legislature appropriated about $23 million of the $43 million in extra funding to combat PFAS requested by Snyder.

This year, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has asked the lawmakers to OK about $30 million more to be dedicated to PFAS research and cleanup, as the Advance reported.

Environmentalists praised the recommendation, although they said it’s just a start. Michigan has found 46 sites contaminated with PFAS at levels that exceed 70 ppt.

Daire Rendon

The DEQ has done extensive contamination mapping, overseen ongoing PFAS cleanup at the former Wurtsmith Air Force base in Oscoda and paid for a carbon filtration system in Richland, where PFAS was heading downstream into the Kalamazoo wastewater treatment plant, according to DEQ spokesman Scott Dean.

State Rep. Daire Rendon (R-Lake City), said more should be done.

“We need to solve this and we need to solve it quicker rather than later,” Rendon told MPART leaders Thursday. “And I appreciate you taking the lead on this, but we need to move much more quickly.”

Michael Gerstein
Michael Gerstein covers the governor’s office, criminal justice and the environment. Before that, he wrote about state government and politics for the Detroit News, the Associated Press and MIRS News and won a Society of Professional Journalism award for open government reporting. He studied philosophy at Michigan State University, where he wrote for both The State News and Capital News Service. He began his journalism career freelancing for The Sturgis Journal, his hometown paper.

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