Study finds high PFAS blood levels around old Wolverine Worldwide dump site

PLAINFIELD TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — When Sandy Wynn-Stelt and her husband Joel bought her home on House Street in Belmont in 1992, they thought it was the perfect spot.

“Loved it because it was close enough to Grand Rapids (that) we could still work, but it was surrounded by a Christmas tree farm,” she said. “That’s kind of heaven, we thought.”

But in early 2016, her husband was diagnosed with liver cancer. He died only weeks later.

Not long after, she learned her drinking well water had been contaminated with PFAS.

“We were all very puzzled in the neighborhood, like, where would this contamination come from?” she said.

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She later learned the Christmas tree farm was being leased on the site of where Wolverine Worldwide had dumped PFAS-tainted sludge for years. The source was the Scotchgard that the Rockford-based shoemaker used for waterproofing. Wolverine has paid tens of millions in settlements and cleanup efforts.

Wynn-Stelt said a test later confirmed her blood had 750 times more PFAS than the average American.

“I don’t live across from a Christmas tree farm now,” she said. “I live across from a potential Superfund site.”

Wynn-Stelt was later diagnosed with cancer herself and survived the illness. She has since turned her experience into advocacy as the co-chair for the Great Lakes PFAS Action Network, visiting the White House and testifying on Capitol Hill.

“It’s no longer about me. That train left the station ages ago,” she said. “This is about future generations and how we’re going to protect them.”

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She was one of 413 people living north of Grand Rapids who had their blood tested by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services between November 2018 and June 2019. All had wells with recorded PFAS levels. The newly released exposure assessment found what Wynn-Stelt always knew: Their blood had PFAS levels higher than national averages. Families who drank filtered water had lower concentrations of PFAS.

Wynn-Stelt now wants the state health department to confirm that high PFAS levels are linked to numerous health issues like cancer and autoimmune disorders. Public health officials are still researching its link to health problems for those who drank water in the affected areas.

“I’m hoping the more we find those links the more we can take action,” Wynn-Stelt said. “Let’s not use this chemical anymore if we can’t safely dispose of it.”

EPA proposes changes to hazardous waste laws to cover PFAS

The Environmental Protection Agency is working on coming up with national drinking water standards for certain PFAS. The EPA’s website says current scientific research suggests exposure “may lead to adverse health outcomes” but cautioned that studies are ongoing. The EPA cited peer-reviewed studies that showed PFAS exposure could lead to developmental delays in children, increased risk of some cancers, reproductive effects and more. However, the agency said it’s difficult to determine how PFAS exposure is related to health effects.

“There are thousands of PFAS with potentially varying effects and toxicity levels, yet most studies focus on a limited number of better known PFAS compounds,” the EPA wrote. “People can be exposed to PFAS in different ways and at different stages of their life. The types and uses of PFAS change over time, which makes it challenging to track and assess how exposure to these chemicals occurs and how they will affect human health.”

Wynn-Stelt said while the MDHHS exposure assessment is a step forward, larger action from the EPA would give her a sense of closure.

“What will close is it for me is when the EPA acts on this and stops it from getting in our water and puts good strong policy about that,” Wynn-Stelt said. “That’s what will bring closure for me. Then I can take a vacation.”

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