Brown epidemiologist and associate dean David Savitz led the Michigan governor’s PFAS Science Advisory Committee, focusing on the health impacts of a class of toxic contaminants.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) is a class of toxic chemicals including byproducts from manufacturing non-stick household goods and waterproof fabrics. These manmade chemicals have been found in contamination sites in at least 40 states, where they can spread to enter the water supply. Many PFAS break down slowly and may build up in the bodies of wildlife and people. 

In 2017, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder established the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team (MPART) to advise the state on how to identify and handle PFAS contamination.

David Savitz, associate dean for research at Brown University and a professor of epidemiology, pediatrics, and obstetrics and gynecology, was appointed to lead the MPART Science Advisory Committee. The committee examined the effects of PFAS on human and environmental health and prepared a set of evidence-based recommendations for how to clean up the contamination.

The report was published on Tuesday, Dec. 18. 

Savitz has done extensive work on the health effects of fluorinated chemicals. He was one of the three epidemiologists involved in the C8 Science Panel, which focused on the health effects of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA, a specific PFAS) from 2005 to 2013 as part of a legal settlement with DuPont. That panel concluded that there was a probable link between PFOA exposure and high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, testicular cancer, kidney cancer and pregnancy-induced hypertension.

Here, he shares insights on the findings from his work in Michigan. 

Q: What were the main findings of the MPART committee’s work?

We encouraged the state to continue the focus on contaminated drinking water supplies and noted the need to come to grips with the wide range of different PFAS in the environment. We found that the current guideline of 70 parts per trillion may not be adequate to protect human health. We also encouraged the state to pursue research to increase understanding of pathways of exposure, the health impact of different chemicals and technology to remove these chemicals from the environment.  

Q: What are the implications of the MPART report for areas beyond Michigan? 

There is nothing uniquely relevant to the state of Michigan that would not be applicable nationally or even internationally. These contaminants are present in most states since increased levels in water can be caused by proximity to places where firefighting foam has been used (e.g. airports and military bases) and hazardous waste sites. Other states including New Hampshire, New York, Minnesota and North Carolina are confronting these same issues and trying make the best decisions on how to manage the issue. We hope that others who face similar challenges in managing PFAS will also find this material to be useful.

Q: What do consumers at home need to know about PFAS?

While there are many sources of PFAS, the one we know most about is contaminated drinking water, which is not readily amenable to individual consumer action. It is not at all clear that changing household consumer products is necessary or would even have a meaningful impact on overall exposure level.

Q: What are some open questions regarding the health impacts of PFAS and PFAS cleanup?

There are many unanswered issues. Some of the newer, substitute forms of PFAS in current use are poorly understood. More research is also needed on the wide range of potential environmental pathways of exposure beyond just drinking water. New technology that could effectively remove the full range of PFAS in a practical way would also be at the top of the list.