Anyone who has been paying any attention to local news in west Michigan knows that PFAS are a group of chemicals that have contaminated local water sources. PFAS are a known carcinogen and the area of PFAS contamination seems to just keep growing. Initially, Wolverine World Wide in Rockford was being singled out as the source of all the local contamination from poor storage of waste product. The scenario in Rockford is not playing out very well. Home values have dropped, complex filtration systems need to be installed, and local fishing now has a “Do Not Eat” designation. Upon further testing it appears PFAS are found throughout the state.
PFAS are a problem, but I contend that PFAS are not THE problem.
The problem is a disregard for nature and the human desire for quick results rather than using sustainable practices. Right now PFAS stories are flooding The Grand Rapids Press. just before PFAS took the headlines Lead in Flint’s water was at the forefront. A quick search of Great Lakes contamination yields reports of PBB’s, TCE’s, Mercury, and oil contamination. Spanning the past 40 years at least. PFAS contamination has now been found above the federal limit in over 20 sites in Michigan alone. And these are just chemicals found in the water, not the physical trash that seems to find its way into our waterways. The Great Lakes hold roughly 20% of the world’s surface freshwater. Certainly we can do much better than this!
There are a couple pieces of this contamination scenario which get left out and I would like to try and explain why the fix is much more than just slapping a filter on a well or cleaning up a landfill.
First, agriculture. The main concern with the recent attention on PFAS has been drinking water. While this is obviously an important piece to fix, not much has been said about the same contaminated well water being used to water crops. Plants absorb minerals, water, and the contaminants from the soil. This is part of why plants with deep roots are so beneficial in a nature swale, which pull pollutants from runoff water before it enters a waterway. If crops are being watered with contaminated PFAS water, there is a great chance these chemicals are also being absorbed by the food we might eat.
Second, contaminants in meat. This part is not PFAS specific and is well known for toxins like Mercury. There is a common saying, “You are what you eat.” While this has diet implications it also carries an important undertone. When fish ingest contaminants the toxin gets stored in its tissues. This is why there is a Mercury warning and a suggestion to limit fish consumption (especially for pregnant women). As the fish grows, it consumes more and more toxins and they are essentially stored and accumulate over time. This is called Bioaccumulation. As you work your way through a food chain, higher level consumers (Humans are at the top) are at the negative end of a process called Biomagnification. In biomagnification the toxins from lower level consumers compound in the predator. The following diagram illustrates both of these scenarios. If the blue shading is PFAS you can see how eating older, larger fish from a polluted stream carries the risk of high PFAS contamination. This has been confirmed with testing in fish from west Michigan. PFAS levels might hover between 5-100 ppt in a waterway but the fish test at 1000-2000 ppt.
I understand that I am a nature-lover. A bit of a conservationist, a tree-hugger. I believe nature has already figured out this wonderful think called Life. The more Humans synthesize materials and try to take-short cuts for the sake of a quick-fix, the more we damage the natural world around us. John Wooden, who was a phenomenal human being and also a pretty solid basketball coach, once said “If you don’t have time to do it right, when will you have time to do it over.” I do worry that as a people we are doing wrong by nature and may run out of time to ever make things right.
Another John Wooden quote I would like to leave this post with is his sentiment on how to make big things happen. “It’s the little details that are vital. Little things make big things happen.” How many “little things” can you do to help the environment today? Recycling a bottle rather than throwing it away. Disposing of chemicals properly, rather than tossing them in the trash. Turning off a light you might usually leave on all day. There are roughly 7,600,000,000 people on Earth. If we all did one little thing each day it would not make a big difference, it would make all the difference. Peace.