Guest Blog – PFAS and the Great Lakes: The Need for Binational Action

Michael Murray, Ph.D., U.S. Co-chair, Toxics-Free Great Lakes Binational Network; Staff Scientist, National Wildlife Federation Great Lakes Regional Center
John Jackson, Canadian Co-chair, Toxics-Free Great Lakes Binational Network

Among the many chemical threats in the Great Lakes basin, the group of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) is getting increasing attention from policymakers, local communities, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and researchers. These chemicals (also known as “forever chemicals” given their persistence in the environment) have been used for decades in applications as diverse as stain-repellent coatings, nonstick cookware, and firefighting foam. In addition to the persistence of most PFAS, they are also commonly bioaccumulative (they build up in organisms in the environment) and toxic at relatively low levels. Studies in people have documented a range of impacts, including increased risks of testicular and kidney cancers, immune system impacts, and impacts on cholesterol levels. Studies in wildlife have shown that certain PFAS can interfere with reproduction, such as reducing hatching success in tree swallows. The extent of PFAS contamination in the Great Lakes was recently reviewed in a National Wildlife Federation (NWF) report, which included a call for joint, binational action to address the problem.(1)

Fortunately there is an avenue for taking such action – the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA) Annex 3 on Chemicals of Mutual Concern (CMCs). Once a substance is designated by the Canadian and U.S. Governments as a CMC, the governments must develop a joint binational Great Lakes strategy. This strategy is to include research, monitoring, surveillance and management actions (such as preventive measures and pollution control actions) specific to the Great Lakes. Because the strategy is developed under the GLWQA, it is required to be guided by the Agreement’s goals of zero discharge and virtual elimination. Given the use of PFAS in so many products, it would be important to move beyond zero discharge from manufacturing plants to zero use in products and processes. Only this approach would allow us to achieve the goal of virtual elimination of PFAS for the Great Lakes basin.

In 2016, Canada and the U.S. designated two individual PFAS compounds (perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid, or PFOS) and one category (long-chain perfluoroalkyl carboxylic acids) as CMCs. Unfortunately, this is only a fraction of the over 4,700 PFAS that may have been used historically. Given challenges in tackling the problem on a chemical-by-chemical basis, a more efficient – and precautionary – approach would be promoting management (including regulation) of PFAS as a class, which is gaining increasing support, including in the scientific community.(2)

In spite of the simple process laid out in Annex 3 of the GLWQA and the clear value in better coordination, current plans of the governments do not include development of a binational strategy for designated PFAS.

Instead, the U.S. has indicated it will rely on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) PFAS national Action Plan, leaving Canada to develop its own separate Great Lakes strategy. One problem with this approach is potential limitations in each individual plan. The Canadian plan has yet to be publicly released. The U.S. Action Plan,(3) released in 2019, has some laudable goals, in particular concerning calling for more research in multiple areas including cycling of PFAS, and human and ecological exposures and effects. However, the plan falls short in multiple areas, including its emphasis on only two of the PFAS compounds (PFOA and PFOS, both of which have been largely phased out in the U.S.), the lack of aggressive timelines for regulating PFAS in various matrices (e.g., drinking water), and insufficient emphasis on avoiding production and use of PFAS in the first place (through more restrictions under the Toxic Substances Control Act).(4)

An equally significant – if not larger – problem is that such an approach, as noted above, is not consistent with the clear direction in the GLWQA for addressing substances that have been identified as CMCs – namely, developing a binational strategy. Indeed, this binational approach has been completed or is under way for the other five chemicals or chemical groups designated as CMCs to date. In the case of PFAS – with the thousands of potential compounds, the plethora of sources, the complex cycling, and potential risks to individuals and communities (including communities of color and low-income communities) and risks to a wide range of fish and wildlife throughout the basin – coordinated binational action is particularly important, as noted in our 2020 webinar.(5)

The U.S. and Canadian Governments have the opportunity now to address the significant threats from PFAS in the Great Lakes basin in a more effective way, which should include the following components:

  • A new commitment to develop a joint, binational strategy to address PFAS in the Great Lakes, based on the PFAS already designated as CMCs;
  • Expansion of the CMC designation to encompass the full family of PFAS, and subsequent actions through the binational strategy to phase out all uses of the chemicals, consistent with the ultimate goals of virtual elimination and zero discharge;
  • A clear commitment in the binational strategy to aggressive policy and management actions to be taken to protect fish, wildlife, and human health, in particular more vulnerable communities, including through more concerted support for green chemistry and engineering, informed substitution, and related approaches; and
  • Identification of key research needs across multiple areas, including related to better understanding PFAS sources and releases, cycling, human exposures and effects, and exposures and effects in a wide range of fish and wildlife species.

Such a strategy can serve as an effective blueprint for coordinated action to address one of the key chemical threats we are facing, and contribute to more comprehensive restoration and protection of the Great Lakes basin ecosystem.

Image source: PFAS Foam on Lakes and Streams – Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy

1. Murray, M.W., and Salim, O. 2019. The Science and Policy of PFASs in the Great Lakes Region: A Roadmap for Local, State and Federal Action, National Wildlife Federation, Great Lakes Regional Center, Ann Arbor, MI.
2. Kwiatkowski, C.F., et al. 2020. Scientific basis for managing PFAS as a chemical class, Environ. Sci. Tech. Lett. 7, 8, 532;543.
3. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA), 2019. EPA’s Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) Action Plan.
4. Letter from Donald S. Walsh et al. to USEPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, April 4, 2019, representing Environmental Council of the States, Association of Clean Water Administrators, Association of State Drinking Water Administrators, and Association of State and Territorial Solid Waste Management Officials.
5. Toxics-Free Great Lakes Binational Network, Healthy Great Lakes Program (a Program of the Canadian Environmental Law Association), and National Wildlife Federation, 2020. PFAS “the Forever Chemicals” Contamination in the Great Lakes Basin – A Strategic Discussion on Further Steps around Binational Citizen Action.