Read the full article by Keith Matheny
“Sandy Wynn-Stelt knows it’s too late for herself. The chemicals she drank for perhaps 25 years out of her tap — the ones that now poison her blood at levels 750 times the average American’s — will remain inside her body.
They may naturally work their way out over years, toxicologists say. But no one can tell Wynn-Stelt definitively what her prolonged exposure to massive levels of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — PFAS, the emerging contaminant causing a rising crisis across Michigan and the country — will mean for her future health.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s health advisory level in drinking water for two of the most common PFAS compounds, known as PFOS and PFOA, is 70 parts per trillion. The levels in Wynn-Stelt’s drinking water tested as high as 76,000 parts per trillion.
Michigan may have more than 11,000 sites contaminated with these once-common chemicals, now linked to cancer and a host of other ailments. Regulators have identified 46 sites statewide with levels above the EPA’s health limit in groundwater.
“It’s kind of this fatalistic view when you realize you’ve drank so much of this, and you’ve got so much in you,” said Wynn-Stelt, 59.
She learned in 2017 that her drinking water well was tainted by a plume of PFAS groundwater contamination that came from a landfill across the street from her house in the Kent County community of Belmont, where Wolverine Worldwide, the longtime shoe and leather products maker in neighboring Rockford, for years dumped waste sludge from its tannery.
Wolverine made popular Hush Puppies shoes treated with ScotchGard for water resistance. That water resistance came from PFAS compounds.
“I don’t know if I worry about my health so much at this point because there’s nothing I can do about it,” Wynn-Stelt said.
“I’m trying to put my time and energy into making sure this doesn’t happen again.”
PFAS contamination is Michigan’s most widespread, serious environmental crisis since the 1973 PBB disaster, when polybrominated biphenyl fire retardant from the Velsicol Chemical factory in St. Louis, Michigan, was accidentally mixed with cattle feed. More than 500 contaminated Michigan farms were quarantined, and 30,000 cattle, 4,500 pigs, 1,500 sheep, and 1.5 million chickens were destroyed. Approximately 85% of the Michigan public received some exposure to the contaminant, tied to cancer, thyroid and hormonal disorders. Studies on long-term effects are still continuing.
There are thousands of PFAS chemicals, many of them little-understood byproducts. Though the chemicals were distributed, purposefully and inadvertently, by 3M, DuPont and other chemical companies for generations, virtually nothing is known about most of them. But PFOS and PFOA — the compounds most frequently cited by regulators because they have received more scrutiny — have been linked to cancer; conditions affecting the liver, thyroid and pancreas; ulcerative colitis; hormone and immune system interference; high cholesterol; pre-eclampsia in pregnant women, and negative effects on growth, learning and behavior in infants and children.
From the late 1940s to the 2000s, PFAS was the 3M Corporation’s wonder product. The compounds made by the Minnesota-based company repelled grease and water, so they could be used for a host of processes and consumer products, from wrapping paper for hamburgers to microwave popcorn bags, from nonstick cookware to carpet and upholstery stain guards, from waterproofing shoes and clothes to use in chrome plating industries and even dental floss.
The qualities that made it so useful, however, also make it virtually impossible to break down in nature — giving the compounds the ominous nickname “the forever chemical.” PFAS can now be found in the blood of nearly 99% of Americans. It has even been found in polar bears in the Arctic Circle, as the chemicals have worked their way up the food chain from fish and seals.
The ramifications from PFAS’s widespread use, its persistence and its harm continue to reverberate in Michigan and elsewhere:
- Some 46 Michigan locations have PFAS compounds in groundwater that exceed the EPA’s 70 parts-per-trillion health advisory level. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (now known as the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy) has estimated PFAS could be found at more than 11,300 sites in Michigan — fire stations, municipal airports, military sites, refineries and bulk petroleum stations, wastewater treatment plants, old landfills, and various industrial sites.
- Seventeen rivers, lakes, streams and ponds throughout Michigan have “do not eat” fish advisories, or limitations on consumption of fish, because of PFOS contamination, including Saginaw Bay, Lake St. Clair and portions of the Au Sable, Huron, Flint, Saginaw and St. Joseph rivers.
- Michigan last year became the first state to issue a PFAS-related, do not eat advisory for deer — in a 5-mile radius of Clark’s Marsh, near the shuttered Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Oscoda, after a deer there was found with elevated PFOS levels in its blood.
- Anecdotal evidence of a chilling effect on hunting and fishing in affected locations could harm a hunting and fishing economy in Michigan that the nonprofit Michigan United Conservation Clubs, in a report released in January, put at $11.2 billion and 171,000 jobs each year.
- Homeowners are worried the emerging contaminants are damaging their property values and discouraging new, local businesses. Iosco County’s largest employer is in limbo on plans to expand its operations at the Oscoda-Wurtsmith Airport because of the ongoing contamination concern.
- PFOS and PFOA were largely phased out of U.S. production by 2015, under EPA pressure. But the chemicals have never been outright banned, and their production shifted to China and other countries, so the contaminants continue to pollute the globe.
- Two of the first PFAS compounds the chemical industry has begun making and using to replace PFOS and PFOA, called GenX and PFBS, have their own health and environmental concerns. The EPA in November announced that toxicology studies show human livers are sensitive to GenX chemicals, and the kidney and thyroid are sensitive to PFBS. The state of North Carolina in 2017 discovered GenX now pollutes the Cape Fear River and surrounding groundwater, a significant source of public drinking water. State regulators tie the pollutant to a chemical plant in Fayetteville owned by Chemours, a spinoff company from DuPont, which manufactured Teflon containing PFAS compounds for decades.
- Having known at least since the 1990s of health and environmental concerns associated with PFAS, the EPA still has only set an advisory limit — with no enforcement power — for two types of PFAS compounds, out of thousands. Michigan is following the EPA number, though a science advisory panel convened by former Gov. Rick Snyder concluded last December that the number “may not provide a sufficient margin of safety” for public health. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has directed that Michigan develop its own, enforceable PFAS drinking water standards by the end of this year.
- Other states are more restrictive. California and New Jersey both have groundwater advisory levels set at 13 parts per trillion for PFOS and 14 parts per trillion for PFOA, and New Jersey is considering making its an enforceable limit, one by which regulators can direct a polluter to clean up until the pollution no longer exceeds the standard. Vermont sets a limit of up to 20 parts per trillion total combined for PFOS, PFOA and three other PFAS compounds. Most U.S. states, however, still have no PFAS water contamination standard in the works.
It’s not just Michigan’s problem. Products containing PFAS were used almost everywhere. The Pentagon last year identified 401 military sites across the U.S. where there are known or suspected releases of PFOS and PFOA through the use of firefighting foam. On at least 160 of those sites, the PFAS contamination in groundwater exceeds the EPA’s health advisory level.
An analysis by the nonprofit Environmental Working Group, using EPA data, last year found that up to 1,500 public drinking water systems nationwide, serving 110 million Americans, contain PFOA, PFOS and other PFAS compounds.
“The whole PFAS issue kind of shows the failure of the entire environmental protection effort that’s going on in this nation,” said Robert Delaney, a DEQ remediation project manager at Wurtsmith, where PFAS contamination first rose into Michigan’s consciousness. Delaney, the first official in Michigan to sound an alarm on the pervasiveness and danger of PFAS contamination statewide, emphasized he was speaking for himself, and not the DEQ.
“Industry understood that these chemicals were toxic maybe 40 years ago. And yet today, we’re having a hard time getting the federal government to address even two of the maybe 3,000 to 5,000 PFAS chemicals that are out there.”
Wynn-Stelt moved to her House Street home in Belmont with her husband, Joel, in 1992, attracted to the surrounding forests and Christmas tree farm on the other side of the street, providing their front-window view. No one told the couple that the trees were planted over the former sludge dump from Wolverine Worldwide’s leather tannery.
Joel died on March 26, 2016, at age 61 of liver cancer, only a few weeks after being diagnosed. Wynn-Stelt says she has no idea whether the exposure to PFAS contamination caused her husband’s cancer.
“I will never know, and that is part of what keeps you up,” she said. “It makes it really hard to grieve when you have all of these unknown questions kind of going through your head.” …
Major centers for Michigan’s PFAS crisis are on two different sides of the Lower Peninsula: Oscoda, near Lake Huron, where the contaminant first emerged at the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base and is now affecting ground and surface water in the surrounding community; and in west Michigan, where more than 1,500 private wells are contaminated in northern Kent County in and around Belmont and Rockford from PFAS associated with Wolverine Worldwide’s leather operations. About an hour south, in Parchment in Kalamazoo County, a paper mill’s landfill leached PFAS compounds into the community’s drinking water supply.
But they are not the only PFAS problem sites in Michigan. The 46 sites at which groundwater contamination exceeds the EPA’s 70 parts-per-trillion health advisory limit for PFOS and PFOA cover much of Michigan:
- In Grand Haven, Robinson Elementary School was quickly switched to bottled water last October after its well water tested for PFOS and PFOA at levels above the EPA health advisory mark. The source of the contamination there is unknown.
- Sites in the Upper Peninsula near Marquette and Escanaba have high levels of PFAS in soils and groundwater, related to operations at the now-closed K.I. Sawyer Air Force Base.
- Around Grayling and Alpena, military-related facilities that used PFAS-containing firefighting foam are also contaminated.
- In Grand Traverse County’s Blair Township, the use of firefighting foam on a 1995 tire fire — one fire, more than 20 years ago — has left groundwater with excessive levels of PFAS compounds.
- In Cass County’s Howard Township, a 2016 tanker truck fire in which the foam was used has also left PFAS contamination in water and soil.
- The Clinton River and Lake St. Clair near the Selfridge Air National Guard Base in Macomb County’s Harrison Township is contaminated because of firefighting foam use over years on the base.
The State of Michigan, in addition to testing public water systems, surface waters and fish for PFAS exposure statewide, is also beginning to assess just how exposed its citizens have become in the west Michigan hot spots.
Federal, state and local health officials are collaborating to assess the exposure levels of those with drinking water tainted from Wolverine Worldwide’s sludge disposal sites.
Affected residents are being contacted and asked to participate in clinics, where they provide demographic data and a blood sample. Health officials are hoping to get 400 samples of blood from two resident groups: Those whose water tested for PFAS compounds above 70 parts per trillion, and those who had some PFAS in their water, but below 70 parts per trillion. After exposures are characterized, further studies may be conducted to examine how health issues potentially correlate with PFAS blood or water levels…”