By Emily Loder, WMEAC Policy Intern and graduate student at Michigan State University
What are PFAS?
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are often referred to as “forever chemicals” since they break down very slowly over time. Once PFAS enters an ecosystem it will stay there almost indefinitely without intervention, and they can be difficult and costly to remove. PFAS can move through soils and contaminate water sources, PFAS-contaminated water sources can cause high PFAS concentrations in fish and wildlife.
PFAS can enter the human body through ingestion of contaminated drinking water or food, and direct exposure to products that contain PFAS. At this time the health effects related to PFAS exposure are not known for sure, but there are multiple studies happening across the state of Michigan that aim to document the effects of PFAS on human health. Joost van’t Erve is a toxicologist with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) who sat down with me to speak about some of the PFAS health studies that are currently happening in Michigan.
“Anything that we learn from the studies should be applicable to all Michiganders. Anything that we find should help the whole state. You don’t have to be part of the study to reap the benefits of it” says van’t Erve.
Michigan PFAS Exposure and Health Study (MiPEHS)
The MiPEHS (pronounced “my-pez”) is a long-term study on the effects of PFAS blood levels and health outcomes stemming from PFAS exposure. The program began in 2020 and consists of three total office visits occurring over the course of six years. There are four steps to the study process: joining MiPEHS, completing the health survey, completing the blood draw, and completing a water sample. However, some participants, including those under 12 years of age, are not able to have their blood sampled, and not all households will have their water tested.
MiPEHS is looking at individuals from two contamination sites, the Belmont/Rockford area and the City of Parchment/Cooper Township. Individuals who currently live in the Belmont/Rockford study area are eligible if they had their private drinking well water tested by, or at the discretion of, a State of Michigan agency AND used that well as their source of drinking water between 2005 and 2018. Individuals who currently live in the City of Parchment/Cooper Township study area are eligible to participate if a Parchment or Cooper Township well or municipal water supply was a source of their drinking water between 2005 and 2018. Also eligible are current or former dependents of adults that lived in eligible households, and who drank the water from that home between 2005 and 2018.
The first phase of data collection for the study ended in October of 2021 and consisted of 1,106 adults and 199 children from 722 total households across the two study areas. 55% of those enrolled in the study were female and 39% of households were using municipal water. The data collected will help physicians understand certain health problems they may need to look for in patients who have been ingesting higher levels of PFAS in their drinking water. Study results will also help scientists learn more about the effects of PFAS exposure and will help build a safer, healthier Michigan.
The program is continuing in 2023 and will start the recruiting phase for their second round of office visits later this year. Just this week MDHHS officials sent out mailers to participants in the first round of the study asking for updated contact information. The ultimate goal, van’t Erve said, is to have everyone who participated in the first round of office visits come back for the remaining two phases. By participating you can learn about your PFAS blood levels, contribute to scientific understanding around PFAS and associated health effects, and help provide your community with information about their PFAS exposure. Individuals who are eligible and interested in participating will be encouraged to contact the study team once recruitment begins again. In the meantime, interested individuals can be kept in the know by signing up for MiPEHS email updates here.
“What we’re working on now is a report that will go out to the community because people will have their individual results, but they don’t yet know how that compares to everybody else in the study. That is one of the first things we’re going to push out definitely by the end of the year” van’t Erve explains.
MDHHS will release the results of the study once it has concluded in 2026.
The Multi-site study
The Multi-site health Study (MSS) is another study looking at how key health factors are related to PFAS levels in blood. This study is being held across seven states and is funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). ATSDR partnered with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) in order to conduct their study in the Belmont/Rockford area and the City of Parchment/Cooper Township area. This study launched in September 2021 and eligible Michigan residents should receive a phone call or a letter in the mail from the MSS research team.
Eligible individuals are adults and children ages 4 through 17 (with parent or guardian permission) who lived in either of the above-mentioned study areas between 2006 and 2018. Individuals in the Belmont/Rockford study area are eligible if they drank from residential drinking water wells. Children aged 4 and up who were potentially exposed in utero or while breastfeeding may also be eligible.
Residents of the study areas who may have been exposed to PFAS through their employment, such as firefighters, those who used firefighting foam, or those who worked at a company that was known to use PFAS are NOT eligible to participate. Residents of the study areas who only had exposure to PFAS-contaminated drinking water before 2006 are NOT eligible.
The MSS consists of just one office visit, where a blood sample will be collected from the participant. MSS participants will be given their blood test results for free and will also be offered gift cards for up to $50 for each participating adult and $75 for each participating child. Enrolling in this study will help individuals understand the levels of PFAS in their body and will help their community to better understand the health impacts of PFAS exposure.
As of 05/19/2022 the MSS is enrolling participants, however they are not offering office visits at this time. van’t Erve explained that MDHHS saw a drop in public interest for the study, and they have decided to halt appointments until October 2022. However, enrollment is still open. If you wish to participate, call 877-256-8073 to determine your eligibility and enroll in the study.
Other PFAS Studies
Three other studies looking at the effects of PFAS on health outcomes of Michiganders are ongoing, but not enrolling participants at this time.
The PFAS Exposure and Antibody Response to COVID-19 Vaccine Study is trying to determine how PFAS exposure affects the immune system response to a COVID-19 vaccine, including if PFAS exposure changes antibody production. Evidence from prior human and animal studies has shown that PFAS exposure may decrease immune responses to other vaccines.
Participants in this study were individuals who were 18-90 years old who were eligible to participate in the MiPEHS study AND were planning on receiving a COVID-19 vaccination but had not yet done so, OR individuals who had received a COVID-19 vaccine in the past 62 days. Participants had 3 to 4 office visits where a small blood sample was taken, and a brief survey was filled out. MDHHS tested the initial blood samples for PFAS and tested all samples for an immune system response to the COVID-19 vaccine.
According to van’t Erve, MDHHS is currently doing the data analysis for this study. Once MDHHS finishes the analysis, study results will be released.
The PFAS in Firefighters of Michigan Surveillance (PFOMS) Project aims to determine the blood concentration of PFAS in Michigan firefighters and to inform decisions on how to minimize firefighter exposure to PFAS in the future. This project will be running from 2021 to 2024 and consists of eligible firefighters at departments who were invited to participate in the study. As such the program is not enrolling individual volunteers. Invited departments include all airport fire departments, select stations within the city of Detroit, and select departments elsewhere across the state of Michigan. All eligible firefighters at enrolled departments are encouraged to participate regardless of tenure, experience, or perceived exposure to PFAS. Firefighters who participate will receive a $25 gift card as a thank you.
As of 04/29/2022 there are 39 enrolled fire departments, 35 departments have been visited and 32 departments have completed a firefighting foam survey. 81 individual fire stations have been enrolled and 72 water sampling appointments were completed. 526 firefighters have enrolled in the program, 511 have completed the survey, and 504 have provided a blood sample for the program.
Participating firefighters and departments will receive the results of their blood tests, as well as results from the water test conducted at the department. The PFOMS team will release community reports at the conclusion of the project in 2024.
Individuals wishing to speak with someone about the project should contact the PFOMS staff at 844-464-7327.
The Michigan Chemical Exposure Monitoring (MiChEM) is a biomonitoring project launching in 2022 that will look at a representative sample of adult Michiganders to determine the statewide average level of exposure to certain chemicals. The project will produce these results by testing blood and urine samples for the chemicals of interest. One of the chemical groups being tested for are PFAS, among other harmful substances. van’t Erve is hopeful that the study will begin this year and says that MiChEM will “really help us to bring context to the results that we’re doing here, seeing what everyone else in Michigan has and then compare that to what we found in Belmont, Rockford, and our other study populations.”
Participants in the sample will be recruited by MDHHS from different census tracts that are selected each year from 2022 to 2023. Since participants will be selected using a specific process, the program will not be accepting volunteers.
Photo Credit: Maia C, Flickr Creative Commons