This blog was originally posted in April 2019. Our understanding of the PFAS crisis has improved significantly since then, and we’re updating this post for 2023.
As the the extent of PFAS contamination around the globe has become apparent, it’s raised concerns about recreation. The Huron River was one of the first rivers in Michigan widely known to be contaminated by PFAS. Thanks to remediation efforts, PFAS levels in surface river water have fallen by about 99% compared to where they were in 2018. As long as we take some basic precautions, we can continue to enjoy the river as we have in the past.
Swimming, Paddling, and Boating Is Okay
At the levels of PFAS contamination found in the river, the best available science tells us that regular swimming in the river is okay and that we can continue to enjoy the river as we have. PFAS is a health risk when ingested over time, or with repeated exposures to very high levels, such as what workers in industrial environments might encounter.
PFAS concentrates in foam at levels much higher than in non-foamy water. Agitated PFAS may cause “PFAS foam” which resembles smooth, creamy, sticky foam, but PFAS can also concentrate in naturally-occurring foam, so it’s best to assume that all foam on the river contains elevated levels of PFAS.
If you do make contact with foam, don’t panic. Simply rinse off with non-foamy river water and wash up with soap when you can.
Take care to keep pets and young kids away from foam, as they may touch foam and accidentally ingest it. If that happens, there is no immediate health concern due to PFAS. The concern is repeated exposure over long periods of time, but it’s best to avoid exposure to foam when possible.
Foam also tends to form below dams, and there is some concern about PFAS in spray droplets that people may inhale. For those reasons, it’s best not to linger in areas below dams.
Do Not Eat Fish on the Huron River
The State of Michigan has issued a Do Not Eat Fish Advisory for most of the Huron River. We expect the advisory will remain in place for several years. Anglers should not eat any fish from the Huron River or the connected waterways for the foreseeable future above I-275. Below I-275 in the lowest section of the Huron River, the state guidelines suggest some consumption of fish is safe. Consult the Eat Safe Fish Guides to protect yourself from PFAS and other contaminants in fish.
Note that the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services is currently reevaluating their guidelines, which are based on old information. Several lines of recent scientific evidence have demonstrated that PFAS are more toxic and widespread in fish than previously thought. The Huron River Watershed Council recommends exercising additional caution and to avoid consuming fish from the Huron River until updated guidance becomes available.
The Huron River Watershed council recently partnered with the Ecology Center and Friends of the Rouge to sample fish in two watersheds. Every single fish sampled in that study contained PFAS, regardless of the species and where they were caught. Read the summary here.
Conditions in the Huron River Improving Amidst a Global Problem
We now know that PFAS are far more toxic and far more pervasive around the world than previously thought. What was once described as an emerging crisis in 2018 is now understood to be long-term global problem.
That said, conditions on the Huron River have improved. As we head into the 2023 paddling season, PFAS levels in the river are significantly lower than they were four years ago. Several sources of the PFAS to the river have been identified and addressed, and the levels of PFAS found in sampled fish is lower than what was found in 2018 and 2019. The Huron River Watershed Council is working with state and local partners to address additional sources, reduce contamination to the river, and inform paddlers on the Water Trail.
Visit HRWC.org/PFAS for more information.