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PFAS-contaminated water turned residents in a W. Michigan community into activists

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Melissa Benmark
Michigan Radio
Belmont residents Sandy Wynn-Stelt and Jenny Carney became unexpected activists when they learned their drinking water had been contaminated with PFAS.

In the past several years, dozens of communities across Michigan have learned their drinking water is contaminated with per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. This group of chemicals, commonly referred to as PFAS, are “forever chemicals.” They persist in the environment and in the bodies of people regularly exposed to them without breaking down.

Sandy Wynn-Stelt and Jenny Carney’s homes in Belmont, Michigan are separated by a highway. They became closer with each other and their neighbors in 2017 when they learned that their water had been contaminated by PFAS. The chemicals got into the water supply through dump sites of a former tannery in Rockford operated by the shoemaker Wolverine Worldwide.

“One of the first things that I thought when we found out that our water actually was contaminated was ‘Nobody’s going to care about a couple dozen homes in Belmont, Michigan,’” Carney said.

Wynn-Stelt, Carney, and their fellow neighbors-turned-activists chose to speak up about the contamination to ensure that they didn’t have to pay extra to get clean, safe water for their families.

Carney said that through her activism, she hopes to advocate for more research into the public health impacts of PFAS and make sure that affected communities are aware of contaminated water. Wynn-Stelt agreed.

Since the community first found out about the PFAS contamination, many residents have been getting blood tests. Carney and her family’s results showed that the PFAS concentrations in their blood were higher than the national average. When Wynn-Stelt was tested in January of last year, she found that the combination of PFAS chemicals in her blood totaled five million parts-per-trillion, which is significantly higher than the national average.

Experts say more research is needed to determine the specific impacts that different PFAS chemicals have on human health. But according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, exposure to several more widely-studied PFAS compounds may impact fertility, interfere with hormones, and increase a person’s risk of some kinds of cancer.

“None of us knew [PFAS] was there and to know that… we were contaminated by this, but nobody bothered to tell us. That’s just wrong,” Wynn-Stelt said. “Communities have to know that you’ve got clean water to drink.”

The ramifications of PFAS contamination have gone beyond health impacts. It has also been a financial hit to those living in communities with contaminated drinking water. Both Carney and Wynn-Stelt noted that property values in their community have plummeted since the chemicals were first discovered. Carney had just finished remodeling and refinancing her home when her family received notification that they had PFAS in their drinking water.

“To get that letter — it was like getting knocked upside the head,” Carney said. “Like I can’t believe we just put so much work into this place, we struggled for so many years to afford it, and now it’s worth nothing.”

Wynn-Stelt said she believes that she and other PFAS activists are being heard. She said the Environmental Protection Agency and the state government are taking their demands seriously. But because PFAS are not considered hazardous substances at the federal level, Wynn-Stelt said, the EPA is limited in terms of what it can do to regulate the chemicals.

When it comes to fixing the problem of PFAS contamination, both women said they would like to see the corporations responsible for dumping the chemicals to be held accountable. Wynn-Stelt added that she would like to see PFAS chemicals registered as hazardous substances and have more drinking water tested for potential contamination.

“The fact that we can create a chemical that we know will last forever, that won’t break down, that won’t dissolve, that won’t burn, and yet we can just dispose of it anywhere willy-nilly is just insanity to me,” Wynn-Stelt said. “And so, we need to have legislation in place that prevents this from happening in the future.”

In 2017, the state created the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team, an advisory board that works with several state departments to find communities that may have PFAS contamination and find ways to address it.

The response team worked with Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy to create draft rules which limit the levels of seven PFAS compounds in about 2,700 water supplies. The rules weresubmitted to Governor Gretchen Whitmerin October. They still have to go through apublic comment period before they become official regulations. 

CORRECTION: A previous version of this post said that Wynn-Stelt and Carney live in Baldwin, Michigan. That is incorrect. They live in Belmont. The error has been corrected above. 

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