PFAS in water have Mich. families fearing future, pushing for standards

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News
Mike and Sabrina Shafer were recently given a water filtration system by the City of Grand Haven. The Shafers fear that they may be affected by PFAS contaminated well water.

Robinson Township — In a rural town known for blueberry farms, nearby Lake Michigan beaches and a tranquil life, Mike and Sabrina Shafer have been alarmed by the presence of chemicals with a complicated name.

Across the street from their home, Robinson Elementary School was found to have levels of toxic "forever chemicals" that exceeded federal health advisory levels. Three hundred students and school staff have been using bottled water since late last year after the combined level of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances or PFAS tested above the safety threshold of 70 parts per trillion.

The Grand Haven area school joined the Kalamazoo area town of Parchment as one of two places in Michigan with the highest levels of the legacy chemicals after nearly 1,600 public water systems, schools and other sites were tested.

The Shafers and other families with wells deep in the ground say they are bewildered. They fear how long the chemicals have lurked in the ground and wonder whether the PFAS contamination will hurt them over the long term. 

PFAS are a class of chemicals long used in firefighting foam, tanneries, metal platers, Scotchgard and Teflon. They have been linked to health risks such as thyroid disease, increased cholesterol levels, and kidney and testicular cancers.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency currently has a PFAS health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion in drinking water. The Shafers and others say the EPA should impose a stiffer standard as it seeks to create a maximum contaminant public health level by the end of the year.  

Mike and Sabrina Shafer stand by their well in the backyard of their Grand Haven home. The Shafers fear that they may be affected by PFAS contaminated well water. The water at Robinson school across the street has tested positive for PFAS contamination.

"I think they need to go a lot further," Mike Shafer said in his kitchen, where state officials have installed a water filter in the sink. "Then you won't have problems like this. I think they need to do more extensive testing to try to get to the problem a little faster.

"Years from now, I don't know if anything's going to happen to us, cancer, whatever. Nobody really knows, do they?"

A Michigan Democratic lawmaker has urged the state to create a PFAS drinking water standard of 5 parts per trillion. In a Feb. 24 interview with The Detroit News, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer avoided backing a specific required PFAS action level but said her administration would use the work of the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team to help in "determining what actions additionally we should take." 

An independent science panel in late 2018 recommended Michigan lower its drinking water health advisory level but didn't recommend a new standard. Instead, the experts suggested the state adopt a level similar to agencies that have based theirs on toxicological outcomes, develop a level based on epidemiological findings or a new level based on a combination of both toxicological and epidemiological data.

Since Flint's lead-contaminated water crisis made national headlines in 2016, PFAS contamination has become a leading environmental issue in Michigan.

Robinson Elementary School in Grand Haveh has tested positive for PFAS contamination.

Michigan has become one of the higher-profile flash points for PFAS contaminants in the country with dozens of sites across the state. The state's $1.7 million testing program was the largest study of its kind in the nation.

"Nobody likes to hear that there's something in the water that can potentially be dangerous, so obviously you're going to have some heightened awareness and some heightened anxiety," said Jeffrey Marcus, the longtime principal of Robinson Elementary. The school is the only building on a well, Ottawa County health officials say.

Kelly Bourque, 51, who lives across from the Robinson school, said her home was the only one in the township to test above the national health advisory for PFAS compounds PFOS and PFOA at 89 parts per trillion. The Robinson school tested at 110 and 119 parts per trillion for the PFOS and PFOA compounds, according to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.

DEQ officials put monitoring wells on her property, similar to what is at the school, to determine the flow of the water and to where the PFAS are flowing, Bourque said. Ottawa County officials also gave the family bottled water, DEQ spokesman Scott Dean said.

The results were reported to Bourque last year while she was preparing Thanksgiving dinner. "Don't make any of your Thanksgiving food with your water," Ottawa Department of Health told her.

"When we found out the Robinson school had it, we had already switched to bottled water," she said. "My son heard me talking about it, and the first thing he did was went and grabbed the cat water and dumped it out and filled it up with bottled water."

A sign declaring 'Environmentally Sensitive Area' is across the street from Mike and Sabrina's Grand Haven Home.

Bourque's husband died of esophageal cancer three years ago and lived in the house all his life. While her husband was a smoker, he quit long ago, she said, adding she doesn't know if PFAS contributed to his death.

"There's so little known about this stuff," Bourque said. "I don't know one way or another."

The danger of PFAS is "always in the back of your mind, but there's nothing you can do about it now except for not drink it anymore," she said.

But school principal Marcus and others have said that while the PFAS situation is disconcerting, it has not caused widespread panic. Only four parents have approached him about PFAS in a school of 300 students, Marcus said.

"Do I want to see us taking in anything that our bodies should not be taking in? Absolutely not," he said. "We've learned a tremendous amount about other chemicals we have used in our society and found out later that they cause problems and the more they learn, the more they realize what those problems are."

The cause of the PFAS contamination at Robinson school is under investigation by the DEQ, but state and local health officials suspect that potential causes could be firefighting foam, undocumented dump sites, potential bio-solid application in the area and materials from a nearby highway construction project.

Robinson plans to install a carbon filtration system later this year, state officials said.

Last year, Parchment and some nearby areas were found to have high levels of PFAS in the water system from chemicals used in a paper mill that ended up in a landfill. Parchment residents were given bottled water for more than month before Parchment was connected to Kalamazoo's water system in August 2018.

Mike and Sabrina Shafer live a block down the road from a farm in Grand Haven.

While the EPA said it was doing all it could to get public reaction and increase standards, DEQ officials said federal officials should be doing more.

U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, who convened a Senate subcommittee on PFAS last year and has criticized the EPA's response to the issue, said people across the state are waking up to the threat.

"I’ve consistently heard from Michiganders about the need for EPA to establish an enforceable standard and share their concerns that  the EPA’s new ‘plan’ only kicks the can down the road," Peters said in a statement.

Peters and U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, have introduced legislation that would mandate the EPA to declare PFAS a hazardous substance eligible for cleanup money under the Superfund law. It would also force polluters to pay for remediation.

Kate White, 63, of Parchment, wants the EPA to do more testing to protect the public.

"I wouldn't want to see another community go through this," said White, whose home is across the street from the city's water tower. "I think it should be tested more. I think there should be standards. I think there should be a lot more research to find out what's the effect to us."

Pamela Berlinksi, 62, who lives next door to White, said she wants to make sure that it's cleaned up, but she's not going to "dwell" on the past. She praised city officials in "trying to remedy things."

"It isn't going to do any good to like worry about it," said Berlinksi, a scientist who grew up on the east side of Detroit. "I like the response, and I'm very impressed with that. I'd love to see the Environmental Protection Agency move in and let's pay attention to this."

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Staff Writer Melissa Nann Burke contributed.