What’s that foam?

Many PFAS compounds, including those that contaminate the Huron River, concentrate in foam. At high enough concentrations in water, they can actually instigate the formation of foam when agitated. Foam contaminated with PFAS has been found in many rivers and lakes across Michigan. Notoriously, Van Etten Lake in Oscoda frequently sees such foam.

Most foam on the Huron River is naturally occurring and forms in agitated water containing organic material that’s breaking down. If you’ve spent time near the river, you’ve probably seen blocks of foam that might have a yellowish or brown tint. It often looks a bit square at the edges and can be dimpled like the surface of a golf ball.

Foam in the Huron River
If you see foam in the Huron River, avoid it entirely to protect yourself from PFAS exposure. PFAS collects in foam, which naturally occurs on rivers. There’s no way to tell just by looking at it, how much PFAS is in foam.
“PFAS foam” tends to be bright white, smooth, piles or folds up on itself like shaving cream, and gets blown up onto beaches or shorelines. In many cases, however, PFAS foam can occur with organic foam, and all foam could have elevated levels of PFAS. The rule of thumb is that you should treat all foam as potentially containing PFAS. If you make contact with river foam, just make sure to rinse off with non-foamy water away from the foam and then wash up when you get home. You should avoid swallowing the foam and keep your pets away from it.

If you see any foam on the river that matches this description:

  • Bright white
  • Smooth and piling up or folding like shaving cream
  • Lightweight, blown inland
  • In an unusual spot to see foam
  • Looks like it might be sticky (don’t touch it to find out)

Do the following:

  • Call the Michigan 24-hour Pollution Emergency Alert System (PEAS) hotline at 800-292-4706 and report the foam.
  • Fill out the pollution spill form here.
  • Take a photo of the foam. Be careful not to make contact. Photos taken with cell phones are often most useful. If you have location services turned on (the default), your photo will include a geolocation reference that can be used to pinpoint exactly where the foam was.
  • Email Daniel Brown, HRWC Watershed Planner at dbrown@hrwc.org. Include your name, contact information, the time, date, and location where you spotted the foam (an address is best, if possible) and a description.

If you suspect you’ve found PFAS foam on the river, don’t panic. PFAS chemicals are harmful with repeated exposure through ingestion. It is a good idea to avoid it as much as you can, however, and your vigilance in identifying potential PFAS foam on the river may help identify unknown sources of PFAS contamination in the watershed.

Daniel Brown
Huron River Watershed Council