Nestled between Canada and the United States, Lake Superior is an immense and remote body of water — the largest freshwater lake by surface area in the world. On its shores, local communities are sustained by drawing on its natural resources. The fishing traditions supported by Lake Superior were interrupted this year by a fish consumption advisory for the Great Lakes imposed by officials in Michigan and Wisconsin. The concern: PFAS.
Per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a diverse group of human-made toxic chemicals. They are found in common household products, such as fabrics, carpets, cleaning products, paints, and food containers. PFAS have been in use since the 1940s and have been compared to DDT because of their ability to persist in the environment. PFAS are made up of a chain of linked carbon and fluorine atoms. The carbon-fluorine bond is extremely strong. Because of this, PFA substances do not easily degrade. PFAS bioaccumulate in the environment, building in concentration as they move up the food chain. This has earned them the colloquial title “forever chemicals.” PFAS can show up in certain foods, such as dairy products, by finding their way into tap water. Drinking water itself can also be subject to PFAS contamination.
According to a 2019 report made by the Natural Resources Defense Council, PFAS have been associated with a wide range of health concerns, such as hormone disruption, cancer, reproductive and developmental harm, liver and kidney damage, and immune system toxicity. Some of these risks exist even with low levels of PFAS exposure.
While there is currently no national regulatory framework in place in the United States that addresses the issue of PFAS use, there is growing bipartisan support in Michigan to impose government regulation. U.S. Representatives Democrat Debbie Dingell and Republican Fred Upton, both of Michigan, introduced the PFA Action Act of 2021 in April. If passed, the law would require the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to establish national standards for PFAS levels in drinking water and would designate certain PFA chemicals as “hazardous.” The White House has said President Biden will sign the bill if it lands on his desk. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has not said whether he will bring the bill to the Senate floor.
One such fishing community is the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community on the Michigan shoreline of Lake Superior. A 2013 survey found that 87% of Keweenaw Bay Indian Community members indicated that they relied on Lake Superior as a major food source or their livelihood. Given the diverse and durable nature of PFA chemicals, it is unlikely human beings will avoid them. That is why a regulatory framework is needed. It is beyond irresponsible to continue to allow PFAS to accumulate in the environment given the detrimental impact they have, and the risk they pose to human and animal health.