It’s Raining PFAS

It means PFAS chemicals are everywhere, even the Sleeping Bear Dunes, and being transported in the atmosphere and building up in our bodies


By Dave Dempsey

Every now and then an environmental news headline jumps out at you as though it were printed in 12-inch-tall type on a newspaper front page or web site. It’s not necessarily because of its significance when compared to other news, but because of the personal reaction it triggers.

Dave Dempsey is FLOW’s Senior Advisor and renowned author of books on Michigan’s environmental history.

Such was the case for me with this one: “It’s Raining ‘Forever Chemicals’ in the Great Lakes,” one website reported recently. “Scientists found high levels of PFAS in raindrops across several states.”

Not only that, but the PFAS chemicals discussed in the story are being detected just 25 miles down the road from my home in Traverse City at the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. That’s a finding of new data from the International Atmospheric Deposition Network (IADN), which has been monitoring the fallout of chemicals like PCBs and DDT since the mid-1990s.

PFAS chemicals are being detected just 25 miles down the road from my home in Traverse City at the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

In light of the growing concern over PFAS compounds, which have been used in everything from firefighting foam to non-stick cookware and have been associated with adverse human health effects, the IADN administrators added the chemicals to the monitoring. 

They have found PFAS at potential levels of concern at all six IADN monitoring sites where the data have been gathered.

“When we compare these chemicals to the legacy compounds—PCBs and pesticides—we see that they are one or two orders of magnitude bigger in the same samples,” Marta Venier, a professor at Indiana University, told Great Lakes Now.

While disturbing on its face, the news does not mean we are being poisoned directly by the raindrops that fall on our skin. It’s still safe to go out in the rain, if you don’t mind getting wet. Our primary exposure to these chemicals is consumption of PFAS-contaminated water or food, using products made with PFAS, or breathing air containing PFAS. 

But the new data do mean PFAS chemicals are everywhere, and that the atmosphere is conveying them from places where they are used and released into the environment to places scores or hundreds of miles away. And that means more PFAS building up in those places and, slowly, in our bodies.

The new data means that PFAS chemicals are everywhere, and that the atmosphere is conveying them from places where they are used and released into the environment to places scores or hundreds of miles away. And that means more PFAS building up in those places and, slowly, in our bodies.

PFAS follow PBDEs, which replaced PBB. The cycle repeats itself over and over: one chemical is found to pose unacceptable risks and actual harm, so it is replaced with another, which in turn is also found to be risky and damaging.

That’s what the all-important science says. What the all-important heart says is that there is something deeply wrong. When we find toxic materials literally raining onto ourselves and our sacred places, we as a society are doing something deeply wrong. And if we ever become numb to it, we as individuals and society have become part of the problem.

When we think of the Sleeping Bear Dunes, do we want to recall a vast panorama of sky, sand, and water—or of invisible chemicals falling down on that breathtaking scene?

Apathy is not an option. Only citizen demands of government, and human persistence that surpasses the persistence of PFAS, will get us out of this predicament.

You can learn more about PFAS, and Michigan’s response to it, here.


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It means PFAS chemicals are everywhere, even the Sleeping Bear Dunes, and being transported in the atmosphere and building up in our bodies