Michigan plans unique testing to assess PFAS impact

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News
Equipment used to test for PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl chemicals) in drinking water at Trident Laboratories in Holland, pictured on Monday, June 18, 2018. Trident Labs added testing for perfluorinated chemicals, known as PFAS, in March after toxic contamination was identified at a former tannery near Rockford.

In December, state officials will begin a one of its kind testing of Michigan residents to better understand the impact of the contamination by forever chemicals.

State health officials plan to start testing the blood serum of residents in Kent County to study the link between drinking water with per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known as PFAS, and the resulting increase in a person’s body. 

The assessment will test blood serum and drinking water samples from roughly 800 residents, half of which have been exposed to high PFAS levels through their water supply and half of which have low to no PFAS in their water.

Though the full assessment is expected to take two years, the state will work to get individual blood serum results to participants within two to four months after the blood draw, said Angela Minicucci, a spokeswoman for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

“We chose Kent County first because they have had the highest number of homes with levels that exceeded the EPA advisory level,” and those PFAS levels were the highest in the state, Minicucci said.

Sandy Wynn-Stelt testified at a Nov. 13 hearing in Grand Rapids that drinking water at her Belmont home near a Wolverine Worldwide dumpsite has tested between 27,000 and 78,000 parts per trillion for PFAS, extraordinarily higher than the federal health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion. Wynn-Stelt’s blood serum tested at 5,000,000 parts per trillion in November 2017.

“Nobody can really tell me what this is going to do, how this is going to affect me, if it will affect me,” she said.

The toxic class of chemicals, once widely used in Teflon, Scotchgard, military bases and firefighting foam, is linked to some health effects, including cancer and immune system problems. 

Officials have said Michigan's PFAS Action Response Team is ahead of many other states in addressing PFAS contamination. The team has been working for about a year to test municipal and school water supplies, identify sources of contamination, initiate litigation against polluters and engage the federal government in issuing federal guidelines for PFAS.

The department will begin contacting residents who have had their wells tested within the next month and begin testing Dec. 8, gradually ramping up the number of participants through the spring.

A public information meeting on the testing is scheduled for Nov. 27 in Grand Rapids.

Adults and children participating in the program are expected to sit through an hour-and-a-half clinic visit at the Kent County Health Department in which they will be interviewed about their exposure potentials. The visit will include a blood draw.

A second phase of the assessment will include a two-hour appointment at an individual’s home where a sanitarian will conduct water testing, Minicucci said.

“We’re estimating this will cost over a million (dollars) that will come out of the MDHHS budget that was set aside for PFAS,” she said.

Though northern Kent County is the first to undergo the assessment, the state also is considering other areas affected by the chemicals, including Grayling and Parchment.

The state is working with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the federal Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry. The exposure assessment in Kent County could increase the county’s chances for inclusion in the federal registry’s health study.

The health study will include testing in various communities throughout the United States and take up to five years to complete, said Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry Director Patrick Breysse at the hearing last week in Grand Rapids.

“I wish there was a magic bullet that we could produce and we could produce it quickly,” Breysse said, but no one will “be served well by science that can’t stand up to the scrutiny of peer review."


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