A new report suggests toxins called PFAS are entering Michigan waterways from a surprising source: landfills. The report from the The Michigan Waste and Recycling Association underscores the prevalence of the hazardous chemicals used in everyday products and their danger to waters. But its authors caution that most PFAS in lakes and rivers likely comes from other industrial sources.
Here’s what happens: Waste is sent to landfills, which produce leachate – a mix of water and other substances – that are then sent to wastewater treatment plants. Those facilities filter out many toxins, but not always PFAS, which is in water when it’s discharged into lakes and rivers.
The trade group commissioned the report of 35 of the state’s 45 landfills that accept municipal waste after the Department of Environmental Quality asked landfills and wastewater treatment plants to study the problem, as Michigan confronts a surge of water contamination crises from PFAS chemicals.
The landfills found relatively high levels of PFAS in leachate. When released into waterways, the chemicals can accumulate in fish and might harm folks who eat those fish, state regulators say.
But the report also suggested landfills man contribute just a small portion of the PFAS released into waterways, suggesting that wastewater from other industrial sources likely plays a larger role. The conclusion came after data from landfills was matched with overall discharges from wastewater plants. Experts cautioned the report offered just one snapshot in time and more testing is needed.
PFAS, shorthand for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a group of chemicals used to manufacture everything from Teflon and Scotchguard to firefighting foam, have been linked to low birth weights, immune system troubles, thyroid problems and cancer.
They are called “forever chemicals,” because they break down slowly in the environment. State regulators thus far have largely focused on two types of “long-chain” PFAS compounds — PFOA and PFOS — that linger longer in the people’s bodies.
The waste association focused on those two chemicals. The 35 statewide landfills collectively sent about 1 million gallons of leachate to wastewater treatment plants, with concentrations of about 0.01 pounds of PFOA and 0.003 pounds of PFOS, the study found.
Meanwhile, 34 wastewater plants examined received about 1.4 billion gallon of waste “influent” from all sorts of sources each day. That included about 0.09 pounds of PFOA and 0.15 pounds of PFOS.