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A lawsuit filed last week aims to recoup past and future cleanup costs associated with PFAS contamination, which affects at least 1.9 million Michiganders.

It can increase the risk of cancer, affect the health of babies, and decrease fertility—and for 1.9 million Michigan residents, it’s in their water supply. PFAS contamination has been called the state’s worst environmental crisis in 40 years, and now, after years of inaction, the state of Michigan is finally seeking to hold someone accountable. 

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel filed a lawsuit last week against 3M, DuPont, and 15 other companies over their role in manufacturing and selling the toxic chemicals known as PFAS (Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances). The suit, filed in Washtenaw County Circuit Court, aims to recoup past and future cleanup costs associated with PFAS contamination that polluted groundwater and drinking water systems in the state. 

“Despite their explicit knowledge of the dangers of PFAS, Defendants deliberately and intentionally concealed the dangers of PFAS from governmental entities, including the State of Michigan and its agencies, and the public at large in order to protect profits and avoid public responsibility for injuries and damage caused by their toxic products,” the complaint states.

PFAS chemicals can be found in everyday items such as nonstick cookware, cleaning products, paints, and firefighting foam. Manufacturers have utilized these chemicals for over 70 years due to their ability to repel oil and water. 

But in recent years, scientists have discovered several health risks associated with PFAS exposure. In addition to being linked with cancer, infertility, and affecting children’s growth, certain PFAS may also suppress natural hormones and increase cholesterol levels.

Most people are exposed to PFAS from drinking water, but these compounds can also be easily transported through air, food, and soil. Because their chemical structure makes them nearly indestructible, PFAS are also referred to as “forever chemicals.” 

Michigan leads the nation in PFAS contamination with 192 confirmed sites, according to the nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG). No other state has more than 47 known locations of PFAS contamination.

The true number of contaminated sites in Michigan could actually be much higher. PFAS chemicals have been used in as many as 11,300 sites across the state, including fire stations, landfills, industrial sites, military bases, and airports, according to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. The state’s “PFAS Action Response Team” continues to test areas for contamination, but the fallout of PFAS contamination has already been called the state’s worst environmental crisis in 40 years.

Nessel’s lawsuit, which follows similar recent suits filed in New Jersey, New Hampshire, Vermont, and New York, was praised by local environmental groups. 

“Polluters must be held accountable for the toxic contamination they cause,” Bob Allison, deputy director of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters, said in a statement. “We can’t have a strong, vibrant economy when citizens are forced to drink polluted water. We have a responsibility to our communities and our children to meet this water contamination challenge head-on.” 

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, there are more than 5,000 types of PFAS. Two of the most common PFAS chemicals, PFOS and PFOA, are no longer manufactured in the United States, but they remain present in the environment due to their long-half lives

A health advisory from the Environmental Protection Agency recommends lifetime exposure limits to PFOS and PFOA from drinking water at 70 parts per trillion. In Michigan, however, state regulators have identified 46 sites where groundwater possesses levels of PFAS above the EPA’s health limit, including schools and military facilities. State officials have also identified PFAS in about 10 percent of public drinking water supplies the state tested, affecting nearly two million Michiganders.

Seventeen rivers, lakes, streams and ponds across Michigan have “do not eat” fish advisories because of PFOS contamination, including Saginaw Bay and Lake St. Clair. There’s also concern that contamination could harm the state’s $11.2 billion hunting and fishing economy and local property values and businesses.

PFAS chemicals have been used in as many as 11,300 sites across the state, including fire stations, landfills, industrial sites, military bases, and airports.

Nessel’s lawsuit calls for the companies to pay for environmental remediation, alternative water supplies, and health assessments for residents exposed to the chemicals. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) Director Liesl Clark have both expressed support for litigation against PFAS manufacturers. 

“There is ample evidence that PFAS represents a clear and present danger to Michigan’s drinking water, our economy and our quality of life,” Clark said in a statement. “Michigan deserves fair compensation from the chemical companies that profited from the sale of PFAS chemicals in our state.” 

Both DuPont and 3M dispute Nessel’s claims. 

In an emailed statement, DuPont spokesman Dan Turner told COURIER that the company had not yet received the lawsuit, but was “extremely disappointed” that the state took legal action that the company believes is “without merit.”

Turner also said that the company is actively pursuing alternatives to PFAS and was committed to fulfilling its remediation responsibilities. 

“We are, and have always been, committed to upholding the highest standards for the wellbeing of our employees, our customers and the communities in which we operate, and we will vigorously defend our record of safety, health and environmental stewardship,” Turner said.

Fanna Haile-Selassie, a spokeswoman for 3M, said that the company also disagrees with the lawsuit’s allegations. “We acted responsibly in connection with products containing PFAS and will vigorously defend our record of environmental stewardship,” Haile-Selassie told COURIER via email. 

PFAS contamination isn’t just an issue in Michigan. As of October 2019, 1,398 locations in 49 states are known to be affected, according to the EWG, and the U.S. House of Representatives recently voted to establish an enforceable federal minimum standard about how much PFAS can safely be included in substances.

While the battle over PFAS has become a national one, Michigan remains ground zero for contamination. The state is home to multiple sites where the level of PFAS present was at least one million parts per trillion, more than 14,000 times the EPA’s recommended human limit of 70 parts per trillion.

Acknowledging that the EPA has not done enough to combat PFAS contamination, Michigan officials have proposed their own standards that would set the limit of lifetime exposure to PFOS at 16 parts per trillion and PFOA to 8 parts per trillion—substantially lower than the EPA limits. The regulations would also require testing 2,700 water supplies in the state for seven PFAS compounds, in order to more thoroughly measure the scope of the state’s PFAS contamination.