SW Michigan Infrastructure Tour
The fourth of six stops in the URC Infrastructure Innovation Tour. The Southwest Michigan roundtable convenes a discussion with legislators, business leaders and URC experts on emerging challenges with water contamination, including per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) and the research underway to meet these challenges.
Launched after publishing Foundation for the Future: URC Contributions to Infrastructure Improvement, this tour is built to continue conversations about infrastructure needs, promote innovation and foster future collaboration.
Tour Coverage & Content
Parchment Mayor Robert D. Britigan III kicked off our conversation by sharing information on how the City of Parchment became aware of PFAS contamination in summer 2018, and the city’s approach to communication, mitigation and collaboration. He emphasized that sound water infrastructure is fundamental to quality of life, and that much anxiety remains about the unknown health effects of PFAS.
Dr. David Hyndman, Michigan State University (MSU) hydrogeology professor as well as the Department of Geological Sciences chair, is a member of the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team. He shared models for understanding the movement of contaminants in ground water over time, and the highly variable characteristics of solute transport. He concluded that once you have a model to understand how contaminants flow, then you can design a remediation model that saves time and funds.
Participants discussed the need to better understand the various types of PFAS exposure. Mayor Britigan, Cooper Township Supervisor Jeff Sorensen and MSU Extension District 13 Director Julie Pioch noted that a top question from residents is whether or not vegetables from gardens in areas that have been shown to have high levels of PFAS are safe to eat. Kevin Besey, public health specialist at the Michigan Department of Agriculture & Rural Development, echoed this question at the industry level.
Dr. Rodrigo Fernandez-Valdivia, Wayne State University associate professor of medicine, discussed animal studies that can inform our understanding of the health effects of PFAS on humans. He also noted that PFAS exists in a multitude of products, including some pharmaceuticals, which use short-chain PFAS compounds, the next iteration of PFAS chemicals.
One challenge raised by Mike Jury, environmental manager of the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE), is the difficulty for consumers to track and understand PFAS in everyday products, as it is not characterized as a hazardous material.
“You as a consumer have no way of knowing,” he said. He cited the history of other bio-accumulative compounds that have since been banned, such as PCBs, recalling they were considered “miracle chemicals” until more was known about their damaging effects.
Robert Delaney, superfund section specialist and DSMOA coordinator at EGLE, noted that while use of some varieties of PFAS/PFOS may be halted, other varieties are used in their place, creating a problem that felt like “whack-a-mole:”
“Whenever we get one under control, then another is used,” he said.
This is why monitoring and testing are critically important activities at this stage, according to Dr. Terry Olsen, University of Michigan (U-M) associate professor of civil and environmental engineering. She noted that gaining a greater understanding of where PFAS chemicals exist and what their effects are will inform our remediation efforts.
Dr. Terry Kinzy, vice president of research and professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Western Michigan University (WMU), noted the value in collaborative research and shared resources, such as between MSU and WMU. She also referenced the Michigan Geological Survey, a statewide resource at WMU that is available for all researchers. She noted that, even when the PFAS challenge has been solved, “this will happen again with other chemicals.”
Discussing remediation, Dr. Qi Hua Fan, MSU associate professor of engineering, shared an update on the MSU-Fraunhofer Center for Coatings and Diamond Technologies team’s innovative biochar technology with a polarized, active surface designed to “trap” shorter chains of PFAS. Those contaminants can then be treated in a plasma chamber to break them down and destroy their structural chains. Dr. Fan and the team are working to scale up testing and production of this filtration system. He urged parallel testing, collection and treatment.
One clear takeaway from the discussion is that the PFAS problem is incredibly complex. Many noted that there are more “unknowns” than “knowns” at this stage. As elected officials work to manage the crisis at the local, state and federal levels, research conducted by Michigan’s URC institutions and their partners, such as WMU and EGLE, offers promise in solving some of the unknowns.
The WILS Morning Wake-Up | WILS 1320 Podcast: Dr. David Hyndman, MSU hydrogeology professor discusses what the University Research Corridor (researchers from MSU, U of M and Wayne State) has suggested to state officials in regards to combating PFAS in the water supply.