Toxic Contaminants Poisoning Drinking Water in Rural Michigan—and Maybe Elsewhere

By on December 30, 2017
Toxic contaminants

Rogue River, Michigan. (Credit: By Bamyers99 [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons)

The Egyptian writer Yahia Lababidi said, “You can’t bury pain and not expect it to grow roots.” This hasn’t stopped various companies from trying, over the years, to bury or dump one of the biggest pain points of being a manufacturer: toxic waste. Unfortunately, in Plainfield and Algoma Townships in Michigan, we are once again seeing that the roots that sprout from these actions do indeed cause serious damage.

Buried toxic history—and sludge

Wolverine World Wide (WWW), the business that created and owns Hush Puppies shoes, has been in Michigan for well over a century—an ancient company by American standards. However, many citizens in Plainfield and Algoma, small towns of just over 30,000 and 9,900, respectively, feel betrayed by their hometown hero as 2017 comes to a close.

Back in 1997, 3M detected a compound called PFOS, one of the PFAS, in blood banks worldwide. PFOS was at that time still present in their Scotchgard product, which they sold to WWW. Within a few years, trace amounts of PFOS were discovered in birds, fish, and mammals from the Arctic to Asia and the US. By 2000, 3M revealed to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that their own research on monkeys showed high doses of PFOS were fatal.

3M announced that it would phase the PFOS version of Scotchgard out in 2000, but before that time it had written letters to some of its clients—including WWW. In fact, 3M sent a letter to WWW in 1999, memorializing a meeting that had taken place that year at WWW headquarters in Michigan. At that meeting, 3M officials told WWW leadership about their concerns over PFOS.

By 2009, the EPA issued provisional health advisories for both PFOS and a related compound, PFOA, in American drinking water. In 2013, health officials in Michigan began to detect high levels of PFOS in fish from the Rogue River, which runs through Plainfield and Algoma. By 2015, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services issued a fish eating advisory, and the EPA set safe limits for PFOS in drinking water at 70 parts per trillion in 2016.

In January 2017, Richard Rediske, a Grand Valley State University environmental chemist, sent a memo to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) about WWW and PFOS, warning them that, “Wastes disposed on site, residuals from spills, production wastes disposed of offsite in landfills, local groundwater, scrap leather buried on site all have the potential to contain PFOS.”

WWW finally tested for PFOS for the first time in April 2017. They checked several wells near a known dump site. In May, water about a half-mile from the dump site and near the Michigan Army National Guard’s Belmont Armory exceeded the EPA’s safety limit for PFOS at nearly 100 ppt. In August, a Plainfield resident’s well water tested at almost 400 times the safety limit: 27,600 ppt. A follow up test revealed PFOS levels of 540 times the limit. Wells in Algoma show contamination levels ranging from nearly 1,000-ppt to 10,000-ppt.

Meanwhile, as residents searched through the wooded areas around their homes and discovered old waste barrels filled with tanning waste, in August WWW issued a statement, indicating they were unaware that PFOS was in Scotchgard until 2016. WWW begins to give Plainfield and Algoma residents bottled water and gift cards, and makes plans to install whole-house water filtration systems to homeowners with wells over the limit in response.

However, as more and more dump sites were found by residents, and a lawsuit was filed, another betrayal came to light. 3M released its 1999 letter to WWW in November, and residents learned that the company had known about the PFOS for more than 17 years.

PFAS and human health

Thus far, at least 30 wells in the area have been found to exceed the federal government’s recommended lifetime exposure levels for PFAS. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), laboratory animals exposed to high doses of PFOA or other PFAS, including PFOS, have shown changes in their liver, pancreatic, and thyroid function, and some changes in hormone levels. Some studies in humans (although not all of them) have shown that PFAS may: affect the immune system; affect the developing fetus and child, including possible changes in behavior, growth, and learning; decrease fertility; increase cancer risk; increase cholesterol; and interfere with the body’s natural hormones.

In addition to his work with Grand Valley State University, Dr. Rediske has worked with the Concerned Citizens for Responsible Redevelopment in Michigan as their unpaid technical advisor. He has helped educate citizens and officials about the dangers posed by PFAS in the environment in this role.

Toxic contaminants

Professor Rick Rediske. (Credit: GVSU)

“Drinking water is the most significant as the chemicals accumulate in the body with daily intake,” Dr. Rediske explains. “Water is consumed daily by all age groups. Food exposure is another factor and fish consumption advisories are present for bass and white sucker in the Rogue River. An expanded fish study will be conducted to examine common fish caught by local fishermen. Age also is importunate as children and the fetus are more sensitive.”

Clearly dangerous chemicals seeping into well water is a major public health concern. There are also other risks that come from dumping compounds like PFAS, such as soil contamination and dangers from runoff.

“Soil contamination, uptake by plants, runoff to surface water, and uptake by fish are all of concern,” cautions Dr. Rediske. “Waste should have been disposed of in a hazardous waste landfill that has double liners to prevent groundwater contamination. They also should have designed the process to recover PFAs at the site rather than entering the waste stream going off site.”

Unfortunately, this buried toxic history has caused a serious health hazard, and now residents are coping with that reality.

“The health hazard is significant because the Plainfield Municipal water system which serves 40,000 people is contaminated, as are residential wells; furthermore, local groundwater supplies are threatened, and Rogue River fish are contaminated, “Dr. Rediske details. “Multiple pathways for exposure are present, plus exposures began in the early 1960s and will extend into the future. An uncontaminated water source for the affected population has yet to be identified, and may require the extension of Grand Rapids City water.”

Cleaning up a toxic mess

Reports as recent as December 2017 have said that 76 dump sites were being investigated near Plainfield Township, but it’s not clear how many of these are actually connected to WWW.

“Most of the 76 dump sites have turned out to be false alarms as they were from discarded burning barrels and farm related trash,” Dr. Rediske clarifies. “I do feel that the problem in Algoma Township is notable, as it shows that the application of tannery sludge to farm land can be very significant. There were many agricultural sites that received tannery sludge as a fertilizer in the area that also were converted to residential developments.”

It is perhaps this difference that accounts for the extremely high levels found in Algoma, compared to the levels that are still high, but not as elevated, in Plainfield. For now, it’s not clear, and the facts are still unfolding. Part of the reason for the slow unfolding process is that WWW has denied that they have any official records of any dump sites; this has left residents to deduce where dump sites are or might be based on memory.

“This goes back to the MDEQ’s statement in the Town Hall meeting that many sites were burning barrels and farm junk,” Dr. Rediske recalls. “The MDEQ also stated that Wolverine has not provided any waste records of where they disposed of materials or sludge. WWW says they do not have any, and MDEQ will be making a written request. It will take a more systematic sampling looking at groundwater in larger areas than trying to find sources if PFAS are identified.”

Until there is a resolution to this problem, residents in the area need to protect themselves, getting their water tested, reporting the results, and using bottled water and home filtration as needed. As they do, it’s entirely possible that their neighbors in nearby areas may face similar situations that are as yet undiscovered.

“Sludge application to area farm land expands the area of potential impact,” Dr. Rediske states. “The compounds are water soluble and spread rapidly. These are emerging contaminants and more sites will be identified in the future.”

Top image: Rogue River, Michigan. (Credit: By Bamyers99 [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons)

About Karla Lant

Karla Lant is a professional freelance science writer and a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists. She also covers other scientific and medical stories as well as technology.

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