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Lawsuits against Wolverine claim 3 deaths tied to PFAS

ALGOMA TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — Ashlee Naffziger keeps a string of beads in a memory box for her son, Hunter.

It includes one bead for every procedure he underwent in his 6.5 weeks of life -- 41 beads in all.

"Everyday life is very hard when you're supposed to have an almost 3-year-old and he's not here," Naffziger said.

Hunter is among three people named in lawsuits alleging that Wolverine Worldwide's growing PFAS crisis killed them. The others include Sandy Wynn-Stelt's husband, Joel, who was 61 years old when he died from liver cancer 1.5 years ago. He drank water from one of the most contaminated wells near Wolverine's old House Street dump.

The third was the wife of a man who lives in Belmont. Details on that case were not available.

Target 8 dug through 79 lawsuits filed in Kent County Circuit Court against Wolverine. Also among the allegations:

  • PFAS led to diseases or other illnesses that sickened 59 people in contamination zones in Plainfield and Algoma townships.
  • PFAS caused nine miscarriages, six cases of cancer, other tumors, thyroid and kidney problems, high cholesterol and more.

"Here you are just drinking simple water that's hurting you," Hunter's mom said. "That's scary to think about, that something so simple and something that we take for granted is hurting us and hurting our children."

Wolverine Worldwide disputes the claims. The Rockford-based shoe manufacturer issued the following statement Tuesday afternoon:

"Wolverine Worldwide understands that these are serious issues facing our community. We are working diligently every day with local, state and federal regulators to resolve this situation. Nevertheless, Wolverine categorically disagrees with the legal assertions made by the plaintiffs' attorneys and we plan to vigorously defend ourselves in court."

Dr. Paul Brooks, who led a study of 69,000 people after a PFAS crisis in West Virginia, said he wasn't surprised by the alleged illnesses in Kent County. It was his study that found links between PFAS and six diseases. The PFAS levels in West Michigan, he said, are much higher than they were in West Virginia.

"Industry is just going to say what Dupont did here: 'Well, it's never been proven to be harmful in humans,' until we found those six links," Brooks said on Tuesday. "But that's not nearly all that it causes. There's multiple cancers that have now been involved."

Naffziger said she watched as the PFAS scare spread from where it started at Wolverine's former House Street dump.

"My mom lives in Rockford, but it's not even close to her. Then the closer it got to them, the more I was concerned," she said.

A recent test found 255 parts per trillion of PFAS in Naffziger's mom's well on Algoma Avenue NE -- triple the state's limit. Naffziger said she lived there 13 years until 2012.

>>Inside woodtv.com: Complete coverage of the toxic tap water investigation

It's an area where investigators believe Wolverine dumped PFAS-laced sludge decades ago on farm fields and possibly in a gravel pit.

The study in West Virginia found probable links to kidney and testicular cancers, ulcerative colitis, thyroid problems, hypertension in pregnancy and high cholesterol. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says PFAS may also affect the immune system, as well as fetal and child development.

Doctors discovered a heart defect in Hunter before he was born.

"He had some holes in his heart and his pulmonary arteries were in the wrong places," his mom said.

Doctors at University of Michigan's C.S. Mott Children's Hospital in Ann Arbor wanted her take her pregnancy as far as it would go so Hunter could survive heart surgery, she said. But Naffziger suffered preclampsia with high blood pressure -- one of the suspected conditions caused by PFAS. She delivered Hunter at 36 weeks in an emergency caesarean section.

Naffziger said she stayed at Hunter's bedside for his entire life, and that she and her husband held him whenever they could.

"I think I made more of a connection knowing that it might be short-lived," she said.

But the surgeries were too much for Hunter. He died in May 2015.

"We removed life support and he took two breaths and that was it," she said. "We know that we made a good choice for him."

"If he could have stayed in longer, I absolutely believe he could have been healthier for his surgery, had stronger lungs for his surgery. And I think if he had that chance, he could have fought harder and longer and who knows how different our story could be right now," Naffziger said.

She's angry but was reluctant at first to sue.

"We weren't going to point fingers where they didn't need to be, and now I think we need to point fingers for sure," she said.

She and her husband Doug have devoted a wall to Hunter, complete with baby pictures.

"Some people may not believe it, but he shows himself in so many ways," she said.

Hunter now has a baby brother, Grayson, born 9 months ago. Now, they fear he could be contaminated with PFAS.


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