GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — State and county health officials are planning widespread blood testing in Wolverine Worldwide’s PFAS zone to learn more about possible health impacts, they said Tuesday.
They expect the investigation will provide more details than the cancer study they released at a press conference at the Kent County Health Department.
That study found significantly higher numbers than expected of prostate cancer in the area in northern Kent County, though it couldn’t determine if PFAS was the reason.
It also found no significant differences in other kinds of cancers.
“I’ve been very concerned,” Kent County Health Officer Adam London said. “I think a lot of people in our community have been very concerned and had a fear that we were going to see, when we looked at the data, that we were going to see some extraordinary difference in the rate of cancer in this area. I’m encouraged and I’m thankful that overall, we’re not seeing that.”
The newly released data represents cancer cases over a 15-year period for two Kent County zip codes in the PFAS zone in Plainfield and Algoma townships.
London cautioned the findings are complex and not complete.
“It’s not the end, it’s not the conclusion, it’s merely one point,” he said.
Health officials say the numbers don’t take into consideration other variables that could lead to cancer.
“You find out they have cancer, but you don’t know, did they drink PFAS-contaminated water? Is it that they have a genetic predisposition? Without all that information, this rather simplistic health statistics review doesn’t let you get to that sort of identification of cause or linkage,” explained Korey Groetsch of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.
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Sandy Wynn-Stelt, who lives across from Wolverine Worldwide’s old House Street dump, fears the report could downplay the PFAS crisis.
“I think it’s important not to throw out studies that are incomplete because people will take that as fact and then dismiss or not take this seriously,” she said Tuesday.
A test paid for by her attorney found 5 million parts per trillion of PFAS in her blood, perhaps the highest ever reported.
Her husband died of liver cancer. She has had thyroid problems.
She said she’d be willing to give a blood sample to county health officials, if her lawyer approves.
“Anything we can do to advance the science of this,” Wynn-Stelt said. “We’re going to make lemonades out of these lemons.”
The PFAS contamination in northern Kent County now covers an area that’s five miles long and six miles wide, impacting 800 wells in Plainfield and Algoma townships.
It started with the House Street dump in Belmont, where Wolverine Worldwide dumped PFAS-tainted sludge for decades until 1970. It since has been discovered at farm fields where the shoemaker also dumped sludge.
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Health officials said they hope to test the blood of as many as 800 people in the area starting this fall. They hope to test as many as possible with wells above the EPA limit for PFAS, and randomly sample people with lower PFAS levels.
They’ll also question them about their health — not just cancer, but also other illnesses.
They hope to complete the $1 million study sometime next year.
It’s similar, but on a much smaller scale, to what happened in West Virginia, where researchers tested the blood of 69,000 people.
That found probable links to kidney and testicular cancers, ulcerative colitis, thyroid problems, hypertension in pregnancy and high cholesterol.
“I think we owe it to our community and I think it’s a great opportunity to learn everything that we can from what we have in front of us,” London said.
State and county officials say they’ve been in constant contact with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry to ensure local studies follow their research standards, in case the agency plans to include Kent County in its nationwide PFAS study.
ATSDR plans to test eight areas across the nation, including near military bases.
Lawyers at Varnum Law, who are representing more than 140 families in lawsuit against Wolverine and 3M — the company that made the PFAS-laced Scotchgard Wolverine used — questioned why it has taken so long to start testing blood.
They said the county, state and Wolverine all denied their requests for blood testing months ago.
Varnum attorney Paul A. Albarran said his office paid to test the blood of nearly 100 people and found high PFAS levels.
“While our original position has been vindicated, we are disappointed that nearly an entire year was wasted by Wolverine’s stubbornness,” Albarran said in a written statement.
Wolverine on Tuesday also released a statement:
“The MDHHS report released today is the first step in an ongoing and long-term scientific analysis of the potential health impacts of PFAS exposure in our community. The MDHHS report found no consistent elevation in cancer incidence for the selected areas of northern Kent County, except for prostate cancer. As Michigan’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Eden Wells explained, MDHHS is ‘not convinced’ that the elevated incidence for prostate cancer is fully explained by PFAS, and MDHHS could not ‘make that linkage’ between prostate cancer and PFAS. The lack of definite results presented today underscores how complicated these issues continue to be. As MDHHS notes, the ability to draw any more specific conclusions is constrained by the limitations of the study.”