Flint Residents May Have Been Drinking PFCs in Addition to Lead

A report by the Michigan Department of Community Health found that the Flint River is contaminated with PFOS, PFOA, and 11 other PFCs.

Illustration: Philipp Hubert

RESIDENTS OF FLINT, MICHIGAN, who drank lead in their water may also have been exposed to perfluorinated compounds, or PFCs, according to a report from the Michigan Department of Community Health.

The May 2015 report showed elevated levels of PFCs in the Flint River — including PFOA, also known as C8, the chemical that spread into drinking water around a DuPont plant in West Virginia and led to a landmark class-action lawsuit. In addition to C8 and PFOS, a similar molecule that’s also based on a chain of eight carbon atoms, scientists found 11 other PFCs in the Flint River ­— more than in any of the other water sources tested around the state.

In 2014, in an effort to save money, Flint switched the source of its drinking water from Lake Huron to the Flint River, a change that resulted in residents being exposed to lead levels high enough to cause irreversible brain damage in children.

The Michigan report was based on tests of surface water and fish for PFCs in 13 sites around the state. According to Jennifer Eisner, a public information officer for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, the report was not designed to evaluate drinking water. Eisner referred questions about the dangers the PFCs posed to people drinking water from the Flint River to the Department of Environmental Quality, which did not return our phone calls.

Michigan’s testing revealed PFOS in the Flint River at levels that exceeded the state’s limits for both non-drinking water and drinking water. The scientists found C8 in 12 of the 13 bodies of water tested, though at levels below the official cutoff for concern. Michigan has not set safety levels for the other 11 PFCs.

C8, which has been linked to numerous health problems, including immune suppression, thyroid disease, and two types of cancer, has been turning up at dangerous levels in drinking water around the country, including Hoosick Falls in upstate New York, as well as in New Jersey, Colorado, New Hampshire, and Pennsylvania. Repeated calls to regulate C8 have been dismissed. In fact, Susan Hedman, the EPA regional administrator who stepped down in the wake of the Flint lead crisis, has also offered hollow promises on C8.

PFOS, which has been linked to low birth weight in humans and causes a similar set of health problems as C8 does in lab animals, was also found above threshold safety levels for birds and mammals. The amount of PFOS in the Flint River more than tripled between 2001 and 2013, and high concentrations of the other PFCs were found in fish taken from the river.

The Michigan report noted that “a more thorough assessment may be warranted” to determine the impact of PFOS on wildlife in and near the river, and raised the possibility that the government “should assess whether fish consumption advisories” for PFOS are necessary. Surprisingly there is no mention of the impact of PFOS on the Flint residents who were drinking water from the river when the report was issued. The report acknowledged the presence of C8, but because levels were below the official safety cutoff, concluded that “human health is not being impacted.”

Still, the levels of PFOS and total PFCs in the Flint River were the second highest recorded in the state. The highest levels were in Clark’s Marsh, a wildlife preserve that borders Wurtsmith Air Force Base, which is home to one of hundreds of military fire- and crash-training sites contaminated with firefighting foam.

The Flint River finding should have sounded an alarm and, according to one historian familiar with the area, could have been anticipated. “The Flint River was lined with supply companies that were giving all the toxic materials that went into the modern car,” said David Rosner, author of Lead Wars: The Politics of Science and the Fate of America’s Children and a professor of public health at Columbia University. Rosner noted that General Motors, which also operated a plant on the Flint River, stopped using the river water because it was “too corrosive.”

“If it’s harming transmissions and basically the open sewer for factories, how could anyone ever think of that water as a source of drinking water?” said Rosner. “The idea that they’re finding lead and PFCs is not surprising. I’m sure that river has many other pollutants, too.”

For more on C8 and PFCs:

The Teflon Toxin
Part 1: DuPont and the Chemistry of Deception
Part 2: The Case Against DuPont
Part 3: How DuPont Slipped Past the EPA

Poisoning the Well
Toxic Firefighting Foam Has Contaminated U.S. Drinking Water

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