Read the full article by Kelly House (Bridge Michigan)

“J.D. Hock’s heart sank in 2018, when the state of Michigan warned it was unsafe to eat deer harvested within a five-mile radius of Clark’s Marsh in Oscoda Township.

For decades, his family had hunted on property just outside the ‘do not eat’ zone. He had just mailed ‘an insane amount’ of venison jerky to his son-in-law, an armed service member in Afghanistan.

‘You’ve got to be kidding me,’ he thought, wondering whether the care package contained poison.

High levels of the ‘forever chemicals’ in Oscoda Township, the result of firefighting foam used on the now-shuttered Wurtsmith Air Force Base, make the Lake Huron community one of Michigan’s most contaminated sites. Along with deer, state officials warn against eating fish and any other aquatic or semi-aquatic animal that lives in the marsh.

Hock now fishes only catch-and-release, and has come to terms with the health risk he takes by hunting. But he worries about what the chemicals are doing to the animals in Clark’s Marsh and the many other locations where state health officials recommend limiting or completely avoiding meals of PFAS-tainted fish.

Years into Michigan’s PFAS contamination crisis, such answers remain scarce. But the state’s experience with widespread PFAS contamination has made it an early research laboratory into how the chemicals spread through the environment, and what that does to the species that live anywhere near the toxic stew.

“Sub-lethal effects”

In humans, research has linked PFAS exposure to developmental problems, hormonal and immunity problems, fertility issues and cancer. That’s why regulators warn against drinking water or eating food tainted with the chemicals.

Effects on plants and animals are far less well-understood, leaving us without a clear picture of whether or how PFAS contamination could harm species that humans depend upon for food, clean water, crop pollination and other benefits. 

The quest for information started in Clark’s Marsh, where a Purdue University research team has been working since 2019 to learn more about how PFAS moves through the environment. 

Could the sediment be a continuing source of contamination even after PFAS stops flowing in the water? Does PFAS contamination transfer from species to species as it moves through the food chain? And, importantly, what kind of harm do exposed species experience? 

Last summer, researchers from Purdue ecology professor Jason Hoverman’s lab visited Clark’s marsh, a large wetland just south of the Air Force base, to collect samples of everything from fish to sediment and algae. From there, they’ll use models to map out how various species are being exposed and whether the toxins can ‘transfer out’ of the aquatic system by, say, a migratory bird eating a fish from Clark’s marsh, or an aquatic insect leaving the water.

For fish, the exposure pathway is fairly obvious: They live in tainted water. But it’s not clear how a land-based deer near Clark’s Marsh wound up with PFOS levels of 547 parts per billion in its muscle tissue. State officials warn against eating any amount of meat with more than 300 parts per billion of PFOS. 

Answering such questions is a step toward understanding how PFAS impacts the plants and animals that inhabit contaminated settings, Hoverman said.

‘It takes a lot to just outright kill something,’ Hoverman said, but ‘we’re concerned about those sub-lethal effects…’”