URC Roundtable Tour: Grand Rapids
Researchers from the University Research Corridor – Michigan State University, University of Michigan, and Wayne State University – held a roundtable discussion on Monday, April 25, 2022, at the MSU Grand Rapids Innovation Park with community leaders and state and local lawmakers to discuss ways to deal with PFAS, the “forever” toxic fluorochemicals that have been found in thousands of contaminated areas around the state, including some in the Grand Rapids area.
This is part of a three-stop roundtable tour focusing on ways URC institutions work to understand and mitigate environmental impacts on human health. The tour aligns with the URC's new issue brief, Tackling Environmental Health Threats.
Below, find a list of event documents, a recap and further resources.
"It’s impossible to overstate how important it is for researchers to have the resources to be able to contribute to understanding these issues. And for Michigan to be at the forefront of these conversations."
URC Executive Director Britany Affolter-Caine kicked off the discussion by sharing a summary of the work researchers at URC universities are doing to tackle environmental health threats, like PFAS.
Between 2015 and 2019, URC universities were awarded over half a billion dollars to conduct environmental health research across over 1,500 projects. Additionally, the URC has seen its institutions over the past five years conduct $1.64 billion in infrastructure-related research.
Next, URC experts dove into their research:
- Dr. Cheryl Murphy, director of the Michigan State University Center for PFAS Research, spoke about how she and her colleagues are using grants from the state of Michigan and other entities to develop and test remedies for PFAS-contaminated sites and explore safe alternatives to PFAS chemicals. “With so many sites around Michigan and the world contaminated with PFAS, it’s imperative that we discover new ways to deal with these chemicals and remove them from our soil and water to protect the health of humans and animals,” she said.
- Dr. Suzanne Witt, a scientist who manages projects on treating PFAS-contaminated water sources at the Fraunhofer USA Center Midwest in East Lansing, noted that the center is researching and developing new ways to destroy PFAS in wastewater with an electrochemical treatment that turns PFAS into carbon dioxide, fluoride and water. “The system we’ve developed still has a way to go before we can start sharing it with community wastewater treatment plants, but we’re on the cusp of developing a process that can remove PFAS from the environment,” Witt said. “We’re excited to be finding solutions that can make our communities and waterways cleaner and safer.”
- Dr. Rodrigo Fernandez-Valdivia, Wayne State University School of Medicine assistant professor, shared how his research team brings together collaborative efforts between the WSU Medical School and College of Engineering to study how PFAS exposure factors into various cancers, including lung and breast cancer. “We know these chemicals can be dangerous to human health, but we’re still figuring out to how much exposure leads to cancer and what the underlying molecular mechanics and dynamics are,” he said. “With thousands of PFAS currently present in the United States, it’s important that we continue our research to find out more about the toxicity of various types of PFAS and what actions we can take to protect human health and the environment.”
State Sens. Winnie Brinks, D-Grand Rapids, and Mark Huizenga, R-Walker, co-chaired the roundtable discussion. They said the collaboration with the three URC universities is showing how research done on campus has real-life applications for communities around the state, helping solve new challenges as they arise.
Sen. Huizenga noted that PFAS contamination has economic as well health implications, one reason Michigan has taken a lead role among states in the investigation, evaluation, assessment, cleanup and regulation of PFAS to limit exposure while preventing further contamination.
“Our cities, towns and the state of Michigan will struggle to compete if businesses and residents are worried about the safety of their drinking water,” he said. “We appreciate the vital work the URC universities are doing to find and share solutions, especially since many communities are trying to figure out what steps to take to deal with this emerging national problem.”
Sen. Brinks, along with several other leaders around the table, remarked that it was powerful for everyone to come together to help bridge the gap between research and practice, so that Michigan is better prepared to tackle these kinds of challenges going forward.
“I think that events like this, where we were able to talk with leading researchers in their fields, are just incredibly helpful for policymakers,” Brinks said. “It helps us understand what's possible, and it helps us understand the science a little better. Most legislators are not scientists. We have a steep learning curve when things get complicated when it comes to pollutants and contaminants. So it really is helpful for us to have a much better understanding, but also to help inform where we can intervene so we can give them dollars to study.”
“I think that this research funding conversation is incredibly important for us as a state, because there are folks in the legislature that don’t think we should be funding universities to the extent that we are. And that [funding] has decreased substantially in the last 3-4 years,” said Brinks.
“The impact of our support for all the things you do is not only important for what happens here in our state, but also the world. It provides us with opportunities to have conversations about global solutions to big problems.
It’s impossible to overstate how important it is for researchers to have the resources to be able to contribute to understanding these issues. And for Michigan to be at the forefront of these conversations.”
An emerging issue discovered in recent research is that of PFAS precursor compounds—or smaller molecules that can have similar harmful impacts.
“We ran into a lot of interesting findings in terms of PFAS precursor compounds, which highlighted complexity of the issue,” shared Dr. Witt. “There’s the typical compounds which we hear a lot about, like PFOA, PFOS. But with the [wastewater] leachate we were finding that the composition is over 75% PFAS precursors. And that was pretty eye opening: because we were focused on the “usual suspects.” But we found that the leachate is high in the precursor compounds.”
Additional research is needed, especially when it comes to testing for PFAS precursor compounds in water that can also cause harm.
Dr. Matt Reeves, Presidential Innovation Professor and Associate Professor of Hydrogeology at Western Michigan University, whose research is focused on PFAS in the natural and engineered environment, shared more:
“If you look at the number of publications and research in what we know it’s grown exponentially. But in so many areas we’re just scratching the surface. We’ve got really good research on PFOA, but what about all these other compounds? Not only these per-florinated environmentally persistent compounds, but also these precursors,” said Reese.
“The US EPA draft 1633 for wastewater (read the EPA PDF here) has around 40 analytes, but we really need several hundred. When we look at metrics like total organic fluorine, we’re seeing orders of magnitude, more indicators of PFAS, in terms of PFAS mass… than what we’re picking up in our analytic suite. We’re still grossly underestimating how much PFAS is there.”
Attendees also confirmed that a greater partnership with the business community is needed, to stop PFAS contamination at its origins.
The Grand Rapids PFAS roundtable discussion was the second of three stops in the URC’s Health Threats Tour that includes the release of a new URC report brief, Tackling Environmental Health Threats.
The first stop on the tour was in Detroit on April 19 at Wayne State University’s Integrative Biosciences Center, focusing on dealing with the health implications of the flooding that has plagued Detroit and other communities.
The tour finishes with a May 16 roundtable discussion at the Delmar Hotel in Traverse City, addressing microplastics in the Great Lakes and other Michigan waterways.
Electrochemical oxidation of PFAS: Unique challenges in landfill leachates (Witt, April 2021)
Via M-LEEaD: Environmental Health in Michigan: Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS)
- Letter 1: Peters holds DoD accountable for recently missing two key PFAS reporting deadlines. DoD has yet to respond to Governor Whitmer’s request and therefore missed the March 31, 2022 congressional reporting deadline. Peters is now calling on DoD to explain their resistance to enter into an agreement with the State of Michigan and promptly establish a timeline for finalizing the agreement.
- Letter 2: Peters addresses concerns regarding elevated PFAS contamination levels surrounding the Camp Grayling Joint Maneuver Training Center. In July 2021, the DoD Office of Inspector General (OIG) included Camp Grayling in a report on the DoD’s efforts to control PFAS contamination. That report concluded that Camp Grayling’s handling of PFAS containments may be exposing people and the environment to preventable risks. In response to this public health threat to the surrounding community, Peters is calling on DoD to provide additional details on actions to keep residents safe and drinking water clean.
US EPA: Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS)
Via WOOD TV (4/25): Researchers, lawmakers talk PFAS at GR roundtable
Via WZZM (4/25): Leaders meet to discuss PFAS in Michigan