The Flint River
Photo: Getty

More than four years since the water crisis began in Flint, Michigan, new information continues to trickle out. That the city’s water was heavily contaminated with lead is no secret now. Hell, even deadly pneumonia-causing bacteria aren’t a secret. Dangerous fluorinated substances, though, are something that’s slipped under the radar—until now.

The state’s Department of Human Health and Services (DDHS) discovered the Flint River was experiencing increased levels of contamination from per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also known as PFAS, a year before the city of Flint switch to this river as its drinking water source in 2014. This group of synthetic chemicals has been linked to cancer, hormone disruption, obesity, and immune dysfunction.

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Local newspaper The Flint Journal-MLive found a long-forgotten report the department had published in 2015 citing water samples taken from the river in 2013 that contained levels of PFAS exceeding the state’s drinking water standards. It’s unclear whether anyone at the state level thought to inform anyone working for the city of Flint, although a spokesperson for the DDHS told MLive the report was shared with other state agencies and the Environmental Protection Agency. Still, it’s possible if the PFAS issue had been better communicated, the city would’ve never switched to the Flint River as its drinking water source in 2014—the move that ultimately caused the catastrophic health crisis in the predominantly black city of almost 100,000.

The water samples in the river reached PFAS levels of 87.2 and 72.1 parts per trillion. The Environmental Protection Agency’s federal action limit is 70 parts per trillion, but a report the White House and EPA tried to keep from going public suggests that number should be closer to 12 part per trillion.

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“Anything above [the federal action level] is of concern,” said Lois Wolfson, a senior specialist at Michigan State University Extension, to Earther.

In an email to Earther, a spokesperson for the DDHS downplayed the significance of the report’s findings.

“The 2013 surface water tests for PFOS in the Flint River simply don’t translate into any evidence of a PFOS exceedance [sic] in Flint’s drinking water during the period of concern,” the spokesperson told Earther, adding that there is “no evidence” that drinking water ever exceeded the EPA health advisory of 70 parts per trillion. EPA results for “finished drinking water” in October 2014—after the switch to the Flint River had been made—were “non-detect” for PFOS and PFOA, the two most widely produced PFAS, the spokesperson continued.

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Finally, the state noted that the EPA’s federal action level of 70 ppt for PFAS was not set until 2016, and that the surface water levels from 2013 were “below the current advisory levels at the time the report was issued.”

PFAS don’t break down, and they can move far distances once they reach surface water, Wolfson explained. So the source of the Flint River’s contamination remains a mystery. Could nonstick cookware be to blame? Maybe. Old firefighting foam? Perhaps. A vast array of consumer products—from microwaveable popcorn to carpets and fabrics—have used the chemicals since they became popular in the 1940s.

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Michigan is seeing PFAS showing up seemingly everywhere: More than 1.5 million people throughout the state have been exposed to the chemicals in their drinking water, according to the Department of Environmental Quality. Roughly 30 water systems, including those that supply Grand Rapids and Ann Arbor, are facing this issue.

“Flint’s not the only place,” Wolfson told Earther. “It’s probably prevalent in other states, as well, but Michigan is doing a surveillance to those places that might be more prone to contamination.”

Looks like the state learned its lesson from Flint and is trying to avoid another water crisis.

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Update 3:30 PM: This article has been updated to include comments from Michigan’s Department of Human Health and Services. The headline of the story has also been updated to clarify the fact that PFAS were found in the Flint River.