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State Agencies Turn Up High Levels of Harmful Chemicals in a Michigan County's Water

Tests have revealed that water in Parchment, Michigan, contains 20 times the federal health advisory for dangerous substances known as PFAS.
Drinking fountain

More than 3,000 people in Michigan cannot drink their water after tests revealed high levels of a dangerous chemical compound that agencies have only recently begun to monitor, despite scientific consensus on the threat.

Results found that water in Parchment, Michigan, contained 20 times the federal health advisory for consumption of perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS—the latest discovery in a state-wide test that's already uncovered a widespread threat.

PFAS are man-made contaminants once widely used in water-repellent clothing, firefighting foams, non-stick cookware, and other household products. Early research suggests that PFAS lead to birth defects and increase the risk of cancer.

The substances can travel long distances over air and in groundwater, but are often found near areas where they were manufactured or used—such as the more than 11,300 potential sites identified for contamination risk in Michigan, according to the state's Department of Environmental Quality. Nearby counties have discovered other PFA sites, including a well near Battle Creek Air National Guard Base, leading some to label this a new water crisis.

More affected communities are likely to emerge in Michigan, as the department continues a survey of public water systems launched in May of 2018. These discoveries have increased lately because the agencies only became aware of the risk of PFAS in recent decades.

On the state level, however, Democratic lawmakers blame Republican Governor Rick Snyder for overlooking a report that outlined the PFAS threat in Michigan nearly six years ago.

"[Republicans] had a chance to prevent an entire generation of children from being poisoned," Representative Winnie Brinks (D-Grand Rapids) said in a statement. "Instead, Governor Snyder's administration chose to sweep this under the rug—just like we saw with the discovery of PFAS in Kent County and the water crisis in Flint."

Meanwhile, concern over PFAS has gone national, with environmental groups like the Sierra Club calling for federal regulation of the compound. The government has been unresponsive—and may even be suppressing the threat. As ProPublica reported in July, new analyses of water data show that the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Defense minimized the threat that the compounds pose to the public, and contamination is more extensive than the government has officially acknowledged; scientists at the Environmental Working Group estimate that more than 110 million people have been exposed to PFAS through drinking water.

The EPA has issued health advisories for PFAS, but it has not taken any real regulatory action, such as setting enforceable maximum contaminate levels, according to the EPA website.

But while this debate has stalled nationally, agencies in states like Michigan have decided to tackle the issue themselves, running studies and expanding their own regulations. In Vermont, the discovery of unsafe PFAS levels in schools this week resulted in state officials vowing to revise contamination standards.

In Michigan, nearby Kalamazoo is extending its water supply to Parchment to help sustain residents while the city purges the PFAS from its water, Michigan Live reports. Bottled water distribution began on Friday, and the governor announced a state of emergency for the crisis on Sunday.

But all of this is merely a temporary solution, leaving residents worried. "I'm concerned now because I'm learning what's been going on and what this means," Parchment resident Larry Fike told Michigan Live. "But for 50 years I've been drinking this water."