The Great Lakes region is potentially facing one of the most serious threats from a family of toxic chemicals in recent memory — per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs). These chemicals are used in baby products — baby mats, pads, blankets, and bibs. They are also used in outdoor clothing, including rain jackets, snowsuits, and winter gloves, as well as in bed linens, carpets, footwear, non-stick pots and pans, toothpaste and dental floss, and other personal care products. PFASs are also used extensively in firefighting foam, with use at military bases, airports, and petroleum refineries. Now the chemicals have been found in all parts of the environment, from soil, water, and air to fish and wildlife, and from the Great Lakes to the Arctic.
PFASs pose a serious risk to human health. Studies have documented multiple effects, including cancers in highly exposed groups (testicular and kidney), impacts to the immune system, and to metabolism (e.g. increasing total cholesterol). Troublingly, PFASs are being found in both public and private drinking water supplies across the region and nation. Available evidence also indicates that elevated PFASs in wildlife can lead to developmental and reproductive problems. In the Great Lakes region, elevated levels of PFASs have been found in insect-eating birds such as tree swallows and fish-eating birds such as great blue herons, as well as bald eagles, fish, and deer—leading to fish consumption advisories and, in Michigan, a Do Not Eat advisory for deer in Iosco County, Mich.
The widespread occurrence of PFASs in the environment and potential health effects serve as an urgent warning that society must confront this threat to protect the health of people and wildlife. The good news is that local, state, and federal governments have tools at their disposal to advance manageable solutions to this far-ranging problem. But they must act with urgency and purpose.
The National Wildlife Federation report, The Science and Policy of PFASs in the Great Lakes Region: A Road for Local, State and Federal Action, details the science around PFASs in the Great Lakes — including their sources, presence in the environment and people, and wildlife and human health risks — as well as the policy and legal framework to address them. It provides a number of recommendations for tackling the problem in the region, with an emphasis on state-level action.
Federal action to address the problem has been slow-going. Some members of Congress are taking steps to advance solutions to the PFAS crisis. Yet questions remain whether a divided Congress and ambivalent White House will act quickly and aggressively enough to address the scope of the problem. For this reason, it is important that governors and state legislatures take a leadership role in confronting the PFAS crisis to protect public health, fish and wildlife, and the economy in the region. Delay will only make the problem worse and more costly to solve. We have solutions. It is time to use them.
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