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The Great Lakes region is blessed with an abundance of water. But water quality, affordability, and aging water infrastructure are vulnerabilities that have been ignored for far too long. In this series, members of the Great Lakes News Collaborative, Michigan Public, Bridge Michigan, Great Lakes Now, The Narwhal, and Circle of Blue, explore what it might take to preserve and protect this precious resource. This independent journalism is supported by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation.

MDHHS report: North Kent County residents have higher levels of PFAS

A satellite image shows Wolverine Worldwide's former tannery site along the Rogue River in Rockford, with proposed PFAS monitoring wells.
from plan submitted to EGLE
A satellite image shows Wolverine Worldwide's former tannery site along the Rogue River in Rockford, with proposed PFAS monitoring wells.

A new report from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services says that residents of northern Kent County have levels of PFAS in their blood higher than the national average. PFAS is associated with several health problems, including cancer, pregnancy illnesses and weaker responses to vaccines.

In 2017, PFAS was found in water wells in northern Kent County, in western Michigan. The chemicals were disposed of in the water supply by dump sites of a defunct tannery formerly operated by the shoe company Wolverine Worldwide.

The new report says that contamination has led to increased levels of PFAS contamination, many via drinking water from unfiltered wells. “We compared average concentrations for study participants to the average for the US population,” said Rachel Long, Environmental Epidemiologist for the MDHHS. “For several types of PFAS, this average was higher in the study population than in the US population.”

“We also saw that 20 or 30% of participants had blood levels above the 95th percentile of the US population.”

PFAS are known as “forever chemicals,” staying in the environment and the body without breaking down for long periods of time.

“The best available evidence suggests that exposure to certain PFAS is associated with several health outcomes including increases in cholesterol levels, lower antibody response to some vaccines, changes in liver enzymes, pregnancy-induced hypertension and preeclampsia, small decreases in birth weight and kidney and testicular cancer,” Long said.

Local resident and environmental activist Sandy Wynn-Stelt can speak personally to those health concerns. She lost her husband to colon cancer in 2016, and she herself had a bout of thyroid cancer two years ago.

One major finding from the report is that some who participated in the study had levels of PFAS in their blood, despite not being in areas with high levels of PFAS. Long says that this suggests there are other sources that contribute to PFAS exposure.

Eating fish from waters with PFAS can contribute to exposure. “There are multiple studies that do indicate that fish do take up PFAS and eating those fish does increase concentrations of PFAS in the human body,” Long said.

“I think that should scare all of us in the state because I think what that's telling us is, as we thought our freshwater system is also being impacted by this and our fish are being impacted by this,” said Wynn-Stelt, raising concern about fishers.

As for what comes next, Wynn-Stelt called for a federal response. “The EPA has been sitting on the opportunity to approve MCLs, maximum contaminant levels, in people's drinking water,” she said. "They've been talking about lowering those considerably from what they are. I think that’s the first thing we need to do.”

She also recommended those with private wells get their water tested. The study suggests that filters lowered the amount of exposure.

A.J. Jones is a newsroom intern and graduate of the University of Michigan-Dearborn. Sources say he owns a dog named Taffy.
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