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Health officials: Don't swallow Huron River foam

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News
Emergency response teams hand out bottled water to residents at Parchment High School in Parchment, Michigan, on July 27, 2018. Authorities handed out the bottled water in the Kalamazoo County community and Cooper Township after the discovery of high levels of industrial chemicals were discovered in the water systems.

Almost three weeks after expanding a do-not-eat advisory to all fish in the Huron River across five counties, state health authorities also are imploring residents to avoid swallowing foam on the waterway due to concerns about toxic chemicals.

The advisory is a partial reversal for state health officials, who in late August said it wasn't a "health concern" if people occasionally swallowed river or lake the water. They have amended the advisory to indicate that "visitors to the Huron River (should) avoid swallowing foam on the water during recreational activities...."

The difference is that "PFAS can be highly concentrated in foam," said Angela Minicuci, a Department of Health and Human Services spokeswoman. The new state advisory was prompted after high levels of the toxic chemical were found in Ann Arbor testing of Huron River foam and following consultation with Ann Arbor officials and local health departments.

"If you think about the ways people can touch foam, their children are playing in the water, they get foam on their hands or if they are swimming and the areas are a bit foamy, it's more of accidental ingestion of the foam that we're concerned about," she said.

The health concern is about people getting the foam on their hands or an animal's fur or accidentally ingesting it while recreating on the water, Minicuci said. It isn't about people just "scooping up foam and eating it," she said.

People should water their hands if they touch the foam, Minicuci said.

The advisory about swallowing or touching river foam also extends to pets, according to the Michigan agriculture department.

“Dogs can potentially swallow foam collected in their fur when grooming themselves,” the advisory read. “Dogs should be thoroughly rinsed off with fresh water after contact with foamy water.”

PFAS is a "big deal" but the threat should be kept in perspective, said Laure Rubin, executive director of the Huron River Watershed Council, which calls itself the oldest Michigan group trying to protect rivers. 

"In the Huron, it's in the surface water, it hasn't been found in our ground water, and it hasn't been found in our treated drinking water," Rubin said about the chemical contamination. "For us the main threat is eating fish."

The Watershed Council is urging the public not to eat any fish from the river's tributaries, either, Rubin said.

"It's posing a potential health risk and in this case we just don't know much about. We need more research, we need to know the extent that it's pervasive in our watershed," she said

Since the chemical contamination affects multiple cities and counties, the state issued the advisory instead of local health officials.

Levels of perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, above 70 parts per trillion are considered unsafe for humans to consume. They are among a group of chemicals used worldwide during the past century in manufacturing, firefighting and common household items as well as other consumer products.

This is not the first time local and state officials have warned about the danger of swallowing PFAS-laced water foam.

More:Snyder renews call for cleanup, water fees: ‘Look at Parchment’

More:Agency, looking for PFAS, samples Kalamazoo River

More:EPA urged to set national, enforceable standard for PFAS in drinking water

More:Wixom firm identified as source of chemical pollution in Huron River

Skin contact is not considered a health concern since scientists say PFAS are not easily absorbed, the state said Tuesday.

A don't-swallow-foam advisory was issued for Van Etten Lake near the PFAS-contaminated site at the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base on Sept. 1. And the Kent County Health Department issued an advisory about Thornapple River foam on June 29, Minicuci said.

The Huron River warning comes after local and state officials indicated that the chemical pollution of the river appears to be coming from at least one Wixom-based auto supplier called Adept Plastic Finishing. 

On June 14, Wixom's wastewater was tested and found to have levels of polyfluoroalkyl, a form of PFAS, far above the federal threshold of 70 parts per trillion. The spike in PFAS was identified as coming through Wixom's wastewater treatment plant from Adept Plastic Finishing Inc. 

The discovery occurred as the state health officials extended their month-long "do not eat" advisory for all fish in the Huron River in Livingston, Oakland, Washtenaw, Wayne and Monroe counties.

The river begins in Oakland County and winds west through Livingston and Washtenaw counties before bending back east through Wayne and Monroe counties. The river then empties into Lake Erie.

Environmentalists have expressed concern about addressing the chemicals in communities’ drinking water supplies and calling for stricter standards to lower Michigan's health advisory level. 

The state is more than halfway through its testing of public water supplies in Michigan.

After the water supply for the city of Parchment and neighboring Cooper Township in Kalamazoo County was recently found to have 1,587 parts per trillion of PFAS, residents were warned not to drink the water or cook with it. Residents in those communities can now drink the water there because the source has been changed to the Kalamazoo water system.

The water supplies of some communities in Oakland, Livingston, Washtenaw and Wayne counties along the route of the Huron River have been tested and no level of the chemical has been detected. Among the public water supplies tested were Fowlerville, Miford, Lyon Township, Waterford and Wyandotte.

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality has launched a statewide initiative to test drinking water from all schools that use well water and community water supplies for PFAS.

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Twitter: @leonardnfleming