We’re not going to be able to eat fish out of Belleville Lake anytime soon.
The permanent state signs have been put up in four locations around Belleville Lake saying “Do Not Eat the Fish” and Daniel A. Brown, Watershed Planner with the Huron River Watershed Council gave an update on the situation to the Van Buren Township Environmental Commission at its regular meeting April 17.
PFAS are toxic, synthetic chemicals used to manufacture many common household products. PFAS is an acronym that represents a family of from 3,000 to 5,000 similar contaminants that have been found throughout Michigan and in the Huron River watershed.
He said they basically are Teflon and shed water. They are toxic in extremely small doses, and are measured in parts per trillion and accumulate in food and tissue.
PFAS are associated with a number of health risks when they accumulate in the human body over time and when they are highly concentrated in the food and water we consume. They are called the forever chemical because they do not go away.
They have been associated with high cholesterol levels, thyroid disease, ulcerative colitis, and infertility in men.
They come from aerospace, electronics, apparel, healthcare and hospitals, building and construction, a certain kind of dental floss, oil and gas, firefighting foam, and semiconductors.
He said Livingston and Washtenaw counties fire departments switched to non-PFAS foam. VBT Fire Marshal Dave McInally was in the audience and he told the Independent that the township fire department now uses foam without PFAS, but they have some PFAS foam in storage until the state decides how to dispose of it. He said there are 36,000 gallons of PFAS foam in the state.
Brown said these are Rust Belt chemicals and they even used them to coat suits to protect workers.
The tri-community gets its drinking water from the Great Lakes Water Authority and it is safe. Those with wells are advised to get them tested.
Brown said information on PFAS is moving quickly in terms of what they are looking at.
He said they were invented around World War II and were discovered to be a problem in 2012 after a DEQ report. In 2016-18, they reemerged and Gov. Snyder issued an executive order to test all drinking water sources.
“Do not eat fish from the Huron River,” he said. “Catch and release only. Don’t eat the foam and don’t let kids or pets into the foam. Avoid prolonged contact with foam and don’t flip your kayak where there’s a lot of foam, since PFAS congregate in foam.
“Standard recreational activity is OK, like swimming, since exposure to the skin is not believed to be harmful,” Brown said.
He said Michigan mobilized around this family of contaminants and all Tier 1 schools were tested and wells were tested, as were all public water supplies.
The fish advisory came out in 2018 when more attention was focused on PFAS because of a spike in Ann Arbor, which was tracked down to a plant in Wixom.
They tested the surface water in the Huron River and found Kent Lake having 1,134 parts per billion, Argo Pond, 404 ppb, Portage Lake 76 ppb, and Flat Rock Impoundment, 11 ppb.
They harvested the fish and ground them up to test. While other contaminants are in the fat, PFAS get into muscle tissue and it’s there forever.
“It will take at least two years to clear up,” he said of the river. “We have to get two clean tests of fish, not in the same year. It’s likely Flat Rock will be the first to be clean.
“The advisory only goes to the mouth of the Huron River at Lake Erie,” Brown said. “Dilution is the solution.”
Brown said there is no drinking water standard for PFAS in Michigan.
“We really need a drinking water standard,” he stressed, noting the contaminant was added to the river in Wixom and Ann Arbor takes that water to drink and it goes out in wastewater and discharges back to the river.
“That’s why we need a drinking water standard,” he said.
He noted Michigan is following an EPA advisory of 70 parts per trillion as being safe. The Center for Disease Control recommends 7 ppt. A proposal before the Michigan legislature is for 5 ppt. Minnesota has 27 ppt, Vermont 20 ppt, New Jersey 13 ppt, and a study from Harvard recommends less than 1 ppt.
“We don’t know how much PFAS is in bottled drinking water,” Brown said. He said, for example, officials who find levels they think are too high in a school may give the students bottled water that has a higher rating than the tap water.
Tribar in Wixom caused PFAS effluent levels at the Wixom Wastewater Treatment Plant to be 4,800 ppt on Aug. 29, 2018. On Oct. 5, they installed GAC filters at Tribar and by Jan. 13, the level was down to 130 ppt. Now it’s down to non-detect, Brown said.
He said no home filter certifies bringing the level below 70 ppt and it’s not below 70 ppt anywhere in the watershed.
He said he is personally skeptical of anyone promising to sell kits for $300 to $600 to bring the levels down. He said professionals charge from $1,850 to $2,500 to test and it is very hard because it is so sensitive. Hand lotion and sunscreen can affect the test and they have to wear gloves.
“We have widespread contamination in our watershed,” he stated.
Brown said Wixom affected Ann Arbor, but smaller sites along the way probably contribute with storm water runoff in Western Wayne and Washtenaw counties.
He said there has been a lot of activity in the last two months and they are looking into a federal response to PFAS. He said federal and state water standards are needed.
He said people can help by confirming their fire department is not using PFAS fire fighting foam. Also, they can call their state senator and representative to support a strict maximum contamination level.
Brown said removing PFAS at the source is the most efficient method, rather than putting filters in Ann Arbor, which is more expensive.
He said more information on the subject is available at HRWC.org/PFAS .
He said MLive coverage on PFAS brought a lot of issues to light and he praised their coverage. He said awareness is important and passing out information to others.
Brown said he is coordinator of the Water Trail on the Huron River and the PFAS won’t keep him from paddling and swimming as much as he can this summer.
Matt Best said they have to treat the sources and then wait six to seven years for the affected fish to be gone.
Brown said the most common question on their web site is when they can eat the fish.
“We’re waiting to see what unfolds this summer, what the testing shows,” he said.
Best said the Huron River Watershed Council did a lot of work on the issue last year.
“They did their part and the state should do its part,” Best said, noting there is still a lot of science that needs work. “They are all guesses right now… It’d be great to be 5 … but 25 might be safe. Nobody knows… Filters are very expensive. We want to do it with the facts.”
Best said he knows a lot of people who eat the fish and the more the message gets out, the better.
Brown said people have asked if they should even be on the river or Belleville Lake.
“If we follow the rules, we should be safe,” Best said. “Face it. We all have some PFAS rolling around in us.”
Brown suggested throwing out old Teflon pans that are showing wear, or at least swapping them out regularly. He suggested using steel, iron, or ceramic cookware.
“It lingers, doesn’t break down,” he said of PFAS chemicals, noting they didn’t want it to break down when it was invented and they did that well.
“If Flint hadn’t happened, we probably wouldn’t know about this,” Best said. “What else don’t we know about? … of the 4,000 in the family, there could be something worse.”
We’re not going to be able to eat fish out of Belleville Lake anytime soon.