Do you remember Polybrominated Biphenyls (PBBs) sowing fear and disease into the lives of Michigan citizens approximately 43 years ago? Those PBB’s entered the larger food chain through a single error made by a Gratiot County chemical company worker when a ton of Firemaster (a toxic fire retardant) was added to cattle feed. PBB’s were ingested by cattle throughout this area and spread throughout Michigan and the Midwest, producing one of the largest chemical poisonings in the Western world. Another much larger and more dangerous toxic chemical exposure has been discovered. This family of toxins, through ignorance, and poor oversight has been introduced to Michigan’s and U.S. citizens in multiple insidious ways. These chemicals are called Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (or PFAS and PFOS).

U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee said that “the seriousness of PFAS contamination cannot be overstated.” Frankly, like the PBB issue in the ‘70s the PFAS poisoning ushers in another era of ecologic crisis. These perfluorinated compounds are linked to cancer, liver damage, birth defects, infertility, thyroid and autoimmune disease, neurologic disorders and hypercholesterolemia. According to Kildee at a recent meeting with physicians, these compounds have been found in more than 30 sites throughout Michigan and are entering aquifers and the Great Lakes. Recently, large amounts have been measured in Lake St. Clair, near 1,000 parts per trillion. Because of this, there is a fish consumption advisory and concern among the cities supplied by water from this lake. All of the Great Lakes will eventually be affected.

The State of Michigan was warned back in 2012 by Superfund section specialist Bob Delaney, a Department of Environmental Quality employee. Not until five years later did Gov. Rick Snyder’s office set up a PFAS response team.

These chemicals have been used in military installations and businesses for a variety of purposes. Some of the most common are water repellant clothing, non-stick pans (Teflon), stain resistant fabrics including carpets, tanning products, cosmetics and fire-fighting foam. There are more than 3,000 of these man-made fluorinated organic chemicals. M-Live reported that it had been found in high concentrations in both Flint’s Gilkey Creek and the Coldwater Road landfill. The EPA has set the concentration for a lifetime consumption limit for humans at 70 ppt. Like with the Lead and Copper Rule used by the federal government, many feel these toxic exposure limits should be lower.

Should physicians desire further information regarding these chemicals for their patients, laboratory tests exist that will evaluate levels of these chemical families in the water and in the blood. Water testing can be done with Pace Analytical Lab, Watercheck and TapScore, to name a few. For testing blood samples there are at least two labs available, NMS and Vista Analytical Laboratory.

The Precautionary Principle was not applied to the PFAS family of chemicals. This is a rule that is used in other countries and Europe but not often in the United States. It is also part of an accepted resolution by the AMA produced by the Genesee County Medical Society. It states that prior to the release of a new chemical into an environment the chemical must be studied and its potential for harm thoroughly understood. In the United States, traditionally many chemicals are released first with little safety evaluation and if significant harm comes, then they are removed. Unfortunately, the fines are much less in many cases than the profits gained.

PFAS contamination was a disaster just waiting to happen. It was not adequately studied for disease-causing potential in people, animals or fish. The sad thing is that people will be injured and die because the Precautionary Principle had not been applied.

In both environmental disasters, PBBs and now PFAS chemicals, serious mistakes were made with their testing, handling and use. It is clear that an in-depth study of chemical safety prior to release into the environment of all chemicals are required. Following this, strict regulation of all discovered toxins needs to be enforced. Perhaps by doing so the ecosystem our children and grandchildren inherit will be healthier than the one that we now share.

This column comes to Healthcare Michigan courtesy of the Genesee County Medical Society. Natzke is GCMS President. The article was previously published in the Genesee County Medical Society Bulletin and appears here with permission.