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EGLE Classroom: Introduction to PFAS
What are Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) and why are they harmful?
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a large group of manmade chemicals that are resistant to heat, water, and oil. PFAS have been classified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as an emerging contaminant on the national landscape. For decades, they have been used in many industrial applications and consumer products such as carpeting, waterproof clothing, upholstery, food paper wrappings, personal care products, fire-fighting foams, and metal plating. They are still used today. PFAS have been found at low levels both in the environment and in blood samples of the general U.S. population.
These chemicals are persistent, which means they do not break down in the environment. They also bioaccumulate, meaning the amount builds up over time in the blood and organs. Studies in animals who were exposed to PFAS found links between the chemicals and increased cholesterol, changes in the body's hormones and immune system, decreased fertility, and increased risk of certain cancers. Studies in which animals were given high levels of PFAS showed effects including low birth weight, delayed puberty onset, elevated cholesterol levels, and reduced immunologic responses to vaccination. Animal studies help scientists understand what could happen in people.
How does PFAS get into drinking water?
PFAS can get into drinking water when products or wastes containing them are disposed of, used or spilled onto the ground or into lakes and rivers. PFAS move easily through the ground, getting into groundwater that is used for some water supplies or for private drinking water wells. When released into lakes or rivers used as sources of drinking water, they can get into drinking water supplies. PFAS released by facilities into the air can also end up in rivers and lakes used for drinking water.
How could I be exposed to PFOA, PFOS and other PFAS compounds?
The main way people are exposed to these chemicals is by swallowing them. PFAS chemicals are sometimes found in drinking water and in cooking- or food-packaging products. PFAS can be swallowed along with the water or food, from there they can enter the bloodstream.
Touching products made with PFAS or touching water that contains PFAS is not the main way people are exposed to these chemicals. Most PFAS do not easily absorb into the skin.
What are the current standards for PFAS?
Drinking water and groundwater sample results are compared to:
Analyte Criteria PFOA 8 ppt PFOS 16 ppt PFNA 6 ppt PFHxS 51 ppt PFBS 420 ppt PFHxA 400,000 ppt GenX (HXPO-DA) 370 ppt
The majority of surface water (i.e., waterbody) samples collected are compared to:
Analyte Criteria PFOA 170 ppt PFOS 12 ppt PFBS 670,000 ppt
Some water supplies draw water from a waterbody, treat the water, and then use it for drinking water.
If surface water samples are collected directly from a waterbody that is also used as a source for drinking water, then surface water samples are compared to:
Analyte Criteria PFOA 66 ppt PFOS 11 ppt PFBS 8,300 ppt
ppt = parts per trillion
What is the state doing about PFAS?
On February 4, 2019, Governor Gretchen Whitmer signed Executive Order 2019-3, establishing the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team (MPART) as an enduring body to address the threat of PFAS contamination in Michigan, protect public health, and ensure the safety of Michigan's land, air, and water, while facilitating inter-agency coordination, increasing transparency, and requiring clear standards to ensure accountability. MPART is comprised of seven state departments, including:
Michigan Department of Military and Veterans Affairs (MDMVA), Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE), Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS), Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD), Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT), Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs.
These agencies are working with federal and local partners to conduct investigations to identify areas and sources of PFAS contamination throughout the state and ensure appropriate public health responses.