LISTEN: 2022 Great Lakes PFAS Summit draws nearly 2,000 attendees
Amy Robinson: If you’ve listened to WCMU for any length of time, you’ve probably heard us talk about PFAS, also known as toxic “forever chemicals.” Today, I’m joined by reporter Teresa Homsi, who has been attending a state conference on the latest PFAS research and management strategies.
Teresa, can you fill us in on what the conference has been like so far?
Homsi: The conference is virtual, so it’s difficult to gauge who is there and what the atmosphere is like. But there are nearly 2,000 attendees from almost every state and 12 countries. This makes this one of the most attended conferences the State of Michigan has ever hosted. I think that attendance really speaks to the magnitude of PFAS as an issue and shows how many questions people have and want answered about these chemicals.
Robinson: So what are some of the questions that are being explored?
Homsi: PFAS are a group of emerging contaminants, which means there are still a lot of unknowns. The conference was focused - among other things - on sources of contamination, and how different sources may impact human health.
In Michigan, there are over 200 known contaminated sites, and that number is still growing. Landfills are the most common sites, followed by industrial facilities, metal plating manufacturers, airports, and military bases.
But PFAS are everywhere, including in a number of consumer products. The ones that raise the most eyebrows for researchers and consumers are food packaging and cosmetics… people have direct contact with them, but we’re still not sure what the long-term health impacts may be from using them.
Robinson: What are researchers saying about PFAS in the food chain?
Homsi: Good question. Chemicals get into the food chain through the application of biosolids - that’s a type of fertilizer made using the waste leftover from wastewater treatment plants. If the wastewater treatment plant receives contaminated water, then the biosolids could also pollute farms, crops, and livestock. Polluted surface waters like lakes and rivers can affect fish and wild game, which we may be eating as well.
Robinson: Given that PFAS are everywhere, what are some other challenges in addressing them?
Homsi: PFAS are often called “forever chemicals,” …they’re very hard to destroy. I’ve reported on some technologies involving PFAS destruction in the past, and this is a growing sector that was also featured in the conference.
But the best “remedial strategy” - and the mantra for most public health and environmental initiatives - is to stop the release of PFAS and find alternatives. This is an area that is only just recently being explored, in part due to growing public pressure and liability risks. PFAS are very useful chemicals and are multi-functional, so alternatives have to be functionally effective, feasible, and proven to be safer than PFAS.