PFAS Foam on Lakes and Streams

THERE IS FOAM ON MY LAKE/STREAM. WHAT IS IT?

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) often receives complaints about foam on a river or lake. This foam can occur naturally or because of environmental pollution. There are many things that can be introduced into a lake or stream that may cause foam to form.

WHY DOES NATURALLY OCCURRING FOAM APPEAR?

Organic compounds from decomposing plants in the lake/river reach the water's surface, where wind and wave action push them to the shore. The concentration, or build up, of the organic compounds changes the physical nature of the water, making it easier for foam form. Turbulence and wave action at the beach pushes air into the water with organic compounds, which forms the bubbles in foam. Currents and boats also mix air with the organic compounds in the water to produce naturally occurring foam. Foam can appear year round on lakes and streams as long as there is open water.

HOW CAN I TELL IF THE FOAM ON MY LAKE/STREAM IS NATURAL OR FROM PFAS, OR SOME OTHER CONTAMINANT?

If you find foam on a waterbody, check out the Naturally Occurring Phenomena brochure on tips on how to tell if it is naturally occurring or PFAS foam. Generally:

Van Etten Lake Foam

PFAS contaminated foam:

  • Can be bright white coloring
  • Tends to pile up like shaving cream
  • Is usually lightweight
  • May blow inland
  • Can be sticky
Naturally Occurring Lake Foam

Naturally occurring foam:

  • Is off-white and/or brown
  • Often accumulates in bays, eddies, or river blockages
  • May have an earthy or fishy aroma

WHAT CAN I DO TO REMOVE THE FOAM?

If you suspect the foam is not naturally occurring, do not try to remove the foam yourself. Call the 24-hour Pollution Emergency Alert (PEAS) hotline at 800-292-4706 to report the foam. 

WHO DO I TELL ABOUT THE FOAM?

When you call the PEAS line, you will need to provide the following information:

  • Your contact information (name, address, phone number)
  • Where exactly the foam is located (e.g. Lake Margrethe at Little Bear Point)
  • How much foam is present, length by width by thickness? (we understand this is an estimate/best guess)
  • If it is a floating mass of foam, which direction is it moving?
  • What time did you first observe the foam, and is it still present?
  • Optional but helpful: wind speed, wind direction, air temperature
  • Optional but helpful: did/can you take a picture of the foam?

IS PFAS FOAM DANGEROUS?

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) recommends that you avoid swallowing foam on the water during recreational activities. Foam on lakes and rivers may have higher amounts of PFAS than the water and could be a health risk if swallowed. Although swallowing PFAS is the main way to get it in your body, an occasional, swallow of water is not considered a health concern. You are encouraged to wash your hands after touching foam to avoid swallowing PFAS that might be on your hands. Skin contact with the foam or water is not considered a health concern because current science indicates that PFAS do not move easily through the skin.

The Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development recommends that people not allow their pets – especially dogs – to come into contact with or swallow the foam. Dogs could swallow foam collected in their fur when grooming themselves. Dogs should be thoroughly rinsed off with fresh water after contact with foamy water.

PFAS foam on Van Etten LakeWHERE HAS THE MDEQ FOUND PFAS FOAM?

PFAS contaminated foam was first discovered on the shore of Van Etten Lake in July 2017 when a group of high school students participating in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) summer program hosted by Michigan State University and DOW of Midland, encountered the foam as they prepared to sample Van Etten Lake surface water for PFAS contamination.  Noting the amount of foam and its unusual characteristics (stiffer and whiter than protein foams that naturally occur on lakes), they decided, with permission from their sponsors, to sample the foam. The foams are contaminated with several PFAS compounds but most notably with PFOS.

The MDEQ has since found PFAS foam at several additional sites that are currently under environmental contamination investigation. PFAS foam has frequently been found on Van Etten Lake and Cedar Lake in Oscoda near the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base and on Lake Margrethe in Grayling near Camp Grayling. It has also been seen and tested on the Thunder Bay River in Alpena; the Rogue River in Rockford near the dam; on the Thornapple River in Grand Rapids; and on the Huron River at several locations.

The MDEQ has received reports of foam at various other locations throughout the state.

 

 

WHAT IS MDEQ DOING ABOUT PFAS FOAM?Drone lifting off at Van Etten Lake

At this time, it is believed Michigan may be one of the only states aware of PFAS foam appearing on lakes and streams. Therefore, the science around the foam is limited, and there is currently no standard procedure to remove the foam. While the MDEQ works on investigating and eliminating the source of the PFAS contamination causing the foam, the MDEQ is also investigating ways to remove the foam from the water.  Foam removal is difficult because the foam comes and goes, requires trained people and specialized equipment, and is expensive to dispose of.

PFAS foam can occur on surface waters either because PFAS was released into the waterbody (for example, if fire-fighting foam with PFAS in it was used to put out a fire and the foam got into the nearby surface water), or the PFAS was introduced from contaminated groundwater slowly entering the body of water. Finding groundwater seeps is an important step to understanding where the PFAS contaminated foam may be coming from.

The MDEQ is the first in the nation to use drones equipped with infrared cameras to search for locations where suspected PFAS-contaminated groundwater is seeping into a lake. As of November 2018, two drone flights had occurred: one on Lake Margrethe (September 2018), and one on Van Etten Lake (November 2018). As of December 2018, the imagery and information gathered from these flights was being interpreted and will be used to determine next steps. Read more about the MDEQ's use of drones.

ARE THERE HEALTH ADVISORIES RELATED TO PFAS FOAM ON LAKES/STREAMS?

As a precaution, some local health departments and MDHHS have issued health advisories regarding PFAS foam on lakes and streams. Current science suggests PFAS do not easily enter through the skin, and skin contact with lake foam is not considered to be of concern. Due to the high amounts of PFAS in some of the foam, it is advised people avoid swallowing the foam while using the water recreationally.

As of November 2018, health advisories have been issued by local health departments and/or MDHHS for the following waterbodies. These advisories are in place indefinitely:

I REPORTED PFAS FOAM ON MY LAKE TO THE MDEQ. WHY WAS IT NOT SAMPLED?

The MDEQ receives reports of suspected PFAS foam from all over the state and staff try to respond to all sightings.  MDEQ staff will sample foam if we determine it might contain PFAS and we have not sampled it on that waterbody before. The presence of PFAS foam indicates a source in the area, and MDEQ staff are focused on identifying the source of contamination and trying to eliminate it.

 

For more information about PFAS, please visit the Frequently Asked Questions.