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Kent County is looking for cancer clusters near Wolverine tannery dump sites

MDEQ image of the area affected by the groundwater contamination in Plainfield Township and Belmont, roughly 10 miles north of Grand Rapids.

Health officials in Kent County plan to investigate whether there are cancer clusters near waste dump sites once used by  the shoemaker Wolverine World Wide tannery in Rockford.

Brian Hartl, an epidemiologist with the Kent County Health Department, joined Stateside today to explain what the department knows now, and how it plans to move forward.

Wells in the area are contaminated with a type of perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs). This family of chemicals was once an ingredient in Scotchgard, which Wolverine used to waterproof shoe leather. 

Hartl said what his department knows about these chemicals’ ability to cause cancer comes from a study done in West Virginia where the Ohio River area was contaminated with PFCs. (PFCs are also known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances or PFASs.)

“They identified two forms of cancer that were potentially associated with these exposures,” Hartl said. “Those cancers are testicular cancer and kidney cancer. So we’ve heard, you know, some complaints or concerns from [Rockford] area residents, and so that’s why we’re looking further into these cases of cancer in the area.”

The Kent County Health Department is working with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) to analyze its cancer registry. Hartl says MDHHS will look at data for urogenital cancer, including kidney cancer, testicular cancer, and bladder cancer, between the years 2000 and 2014.

As cancer isn’t the only health effect that’s been linked to PFCs, Hartl said his department will also conduct a survey of residents to gather more information.

“I think what we’re doing is trying to, you know, respond to the concerns around health and do what we can to investigate these health issues, and see what can be done,” he said.

Listen above for the full conversation.

To follow along with the Kent County Health Department’s findings, Hartl referred listeners to the department’s weekly newsletters. You can find those here.

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