Stay away from foam when swimming, state health dept. advises

Harmful foam tends to be bright white in color

Photo of Angela Mulka
PFAS foam gathers at the the Van Etten Creek dam in Oscoda Township, Michigan.

PFAS foam gathers at the the Van Etten Creek dam in Oscoda Township, Michigan.

Photo provided/Jake May/AP

Michigan residents are reminded to avoid foam on waterbodies like lakes, rivers and streams as temperatures warm to reduce exposure to so-called "forever chemicals" called PFAS.

Foam can form on any waterbody and sometimes can have harmful chemicals in it like high levels of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances commonly known as PFAS, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services in a Thursday press release.

PFAS, called "forever chemicals" because they last so long in the environment, have been associated with serious health conditions, including cancer, reduced antibody responses to vaccines, reduced birth weight and possibly more, according to the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

These man-made chemicals have proven to be a problem for Michigan. PFAS chemicals have been around since the late 1930s when a DuPont scientist created one by accident during a lab experiment. DuPont called it Teflon, which eventually became a household name for its use on nonstick pans.

Besides non-stick cookware, PFAS chemicals are known for being used in water-repellent clothing, stain-resistant fabrics and carpets, some cosmetics and some firefighting foams.

Because of the widespread use of PFAS, these chemicals are now present in 219 sites statewide with more than 11,000 sites where they may have been used, according to the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team. The sites include public water systems, military bases, military and civilian airports, industrial plants, dumps and firefighter training sites.

PFAS-containing foam tends to be bright white in color, lightweight and may pile up along shores or blow onto beaches, according to MDHHS.

While natural foam without PFAS is usually off-white and/or brown often has an earthy or fishy scent and tends to pile up in bays, eddies or at river barriers such as dams.

An evaluation by MDHHS suggests young children who come into contact with PFAS-containing foam for a few hours a day may be more at risk of negative health effects.

A recent review by a panel of experts looking at research on PFAS toxicity concluded with a high degree of certainty that PFAS chemicals contribute to thyroid disease, elevated cholesterol, liver damage and kidney and testicular cancer.

If you do come in contact with the foam, MDHHS recommends that you rinse off or bathe as soon as possible. This is especially true if the waterbody is one of the 11,000 sites with suspected PFAS contamination.

Coming into contact with foam without rinsing off or bathing can lead to accidentally swallowing foam or foam residue.

Jim Starr, president of Absolute Golf Ball Retrieval in Utica and a former firefighter, says he knows multiple fire fighting buddies that have developed cancer by essentially swimming in fire retardant foam containing PFAS for years when extinguishing flames on the job.

"Studies have shown that the risk of PFAS getting into your body from skin contact is low, but you can accidentally swallow PFAS or other chemicals and bacteria if you do not rinse off or bathe after coming into contact with foam," Natasha Bagdasarian, MDHHS chief medical executive said in the Thursday release. "Washing your hands and rinsing off after water activities can protect you from chemicals or bacteria that may be in water or foam."

Health advisories have been issued for some waterbodies where PFAS-containing foam has been found, according to MDHHS. These advisories can be found in the "PFAS Foam on Lakes and Streams" section of the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team website.

The Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development also recommends that people do not allow their animals to come into contact or swallow foam on waterbodies. If animals do come in contact with the foam, they should be rinsed off and bathed with fresh water as foam can build up in animal fur.

Animal owners with questions related to animals and foam ingestion should contact their veterinarian, according to MDARD.

Anyone with questions about exposure to PFAS or foam can call the MDHHS Environmental Health hotline at 800-648-6942.

Additionally, the federal Environmental Protection Agency recently issued new warnings about the risk of PFAS chemicals in drinking water even at very low levels.

In 2016, the EPA set health advisories for PFOS and PFOA at 70 parts per trillion. In light of new science, and the growing understanding of the dangers of these chemicals, the EPA set a new level of .02 ppt for PFOS and .004 ppt for PFOA, affirming that these chemicals are not safe even at the lowest levels of detection.

The EPA also set lifetime health advisory limits for GenX at 10 ppt and PFBS at 2000 ppt. The advisory for Genx establishes that newer forms of PFAS are not safe and pose threats to our health and drinking water.

"Under the President’s leadership, the Environmental Protection Agency has now confirmed that there are effectively no safe levels of PFOA or PFOS and it has shot down the notion that newer PFAS chemicals, like GenX, are harmless," Tony Spaniola, co-chair of the Great Lakes PFAS Action Network said in a statement earlier this month.