We arrived at Parchment Michigan on a Friday evening greeted by detours, piles of sand and parked earth moving equipment. “Everything’s torn up around here” I said to my wife who gave me a sideways glance and quipped flatly “Really?”
In a moment we found our friend's home, unloaded luggage, exchanged hugs and proceeded to catch up on each other’s lives. Then I went to the sink for a glass of water. “Oh, here’s a bottled water. Drink this” they said. I protested, saying tap was fine. “We can’t drink the water yet” they countered. I asked why not but I already knew the answer.
Parchment was part of the industrial paper empire of Kalamazoo Michigan. The first paper mill built by The Kalamazoo Paper Company, was completed in 1867. Many others followed. By 1901 the Bryant and King Paper companies joined the business community, securing the reputation of the Paper City. Dozens of smaller mills sprang up on the watershed.
Michigan in the 1800s was ideal for paper manufacturing. Forests are fed by prevailing Westerly winds with abundant moist air from lake Michigan. The 131 rainy days and 38 inches of rainfall each year fill streams and rivers like the Kalamazoo. Mills need these two resources in abundance. No government regulation and available local rail transport to the Chicago area made the transport of completed product economical.
“They discovered PFAS in the water and now we are connecting to Kalamazoo water.” PFAS stands for PolyFlouroAlkyl Substances and is held to a standard of 70 parts per trillion in US drinking water. PFAS levels in Parchment water was found to be 26 times higher than allowed when tested in 2018. It’s known to cause adverse effects. Here’s the EPA’s description of the family of chemicals:
“Studies indicate that PFOA and PFOS can cause reproductive and developmental, liver and kidney, and immunological effects in laboratory animals. Both chemicals have caused tumors in animal studies. The most consistent findings from human epidemiology studies are increased cholesterol levels among exposed populations, with more limited findings related to: infant birth weights, effects on the immune system, cancer (for PFOA), and thyroid hormone disruption (for PFOS).”
Over the past few years, the provenance of this pollutant in Kalamazoo county has become clear. Fort James Corporation ran a mill in the 1990s producing laminated paper products. They used a PFAS chemical patented by 3M to eliminate dirt and repel oil in the production process. Georgia-Pacific acquired the plant not long after and eventually phased out use of PFAS chemicals in 2000. They’ve taken responsibly of research into the cause, installing monitoring facilities for ground water contamination and funding other monitoring measures but the damage is done.
There is a cost for progress and in this case the use of PFAS followed by the discovery of its dangers cost 3M and Georgia-Pacific $11.9m. Our industrial companies constantly seek improvements to their products through better control of chemistry. The Society of Chemical Manufacturers and Affiliates (SOCMA) estimates there are between 25,000 and 84,000 industrial chemicals in commerce today. The EPA is tasked with testing all these chemicals for human and environmental safety but even with a budget over $11b and a staff of over 15 thousand employees this is a daunting task. In many cases the impact of chemicals is long term and may only be discovered over the course of its use. In some famous cases, like PFAS, companies may have known of potential dangers and commercialized chemicals anyway*.
Given the number of chemicals, the difficulty in discovering biological effects and the high cost of error in industrial chemistry it makes sense to proceed with caution in our choice of products. Chemical exposure in our homes is largely a matter of choice. Thankfully, there are companies that make “Earth friendly” a part of their production philosophy. Earth friendly isn’t just for the plants and animals of the watersheds and parks, it’s often much closer to home. It can be about impacts to ourselves and our families.
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Map of the 2337 sites in the US with PFAS ground water exposure (EWG).
*The discovery of the dangers of PFAS are well known and documented in the film “The Devil We Know”.