BELMONT, MICH. - The industrial PFAS chemicals dumped by Wolverine Worldwide decades ago are now in the blood of Kent County people at significantly high levels, said Aaron Phelps, an attorney at Varnum Law.
Tobyn and Seth McNaughton found out their 20-month-old son, Jack, had PFAS in his blood at a level of 484 parts per billion, or 484,000 parts per trillion (ppt). That's more than 50 times the national average, according to a Red Cross study.
"It just broke my heart," Tobyn McNaughton said. "Water contamination is on his medical chart. And it's always going to be there."
The results are just shy of the PFAS groundwater reading at the old Wolverine Worldwide tannery campus in Rockford, where the company applied Scotchgard, containing PFAS, to waterproof shoes until 2002.
State officials and Wolverine Worldwide have tested more than 1,000 wells in northern Kent County and more than 300 are contaminated with PFAS, according to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). The EPA standard for safe drinking water is 70 ppt, and the McNaughton's well tested over 1,000 ppt.
"He's had constant colds,, ear infections, antibiotics weren't working," McNaughton said. "His immunity it just really down. It makes you wonder if that's part of it."
PFAS exposure is linked to illnesses such as kidney and testicular cancers, poor liver and thyroid functioning, infertility and autoimmune diseases.
"There is a significant exposure, among the highest in the country," Phelps said.
Varnum Law represents more than 200 clients for water contamination and has filed more than 50 suits against Wolverine. The firm paid for three individual blood tests and said it plans to order 40-50 more in the next month.
"Residents want [tests] done," Phelps said. "They want to know what their blood levels are. And they want to be able to provide that information to their doctors, so they have that information making medical decisions going forward."
Sandy Wynn-Stelt, who lives across the street from Wolverine Worldwide's old landfill on House Street in Belmont was "in disbelief" when his results came back at 5 million ppt -- around 750 times the average.
"It's a little shocking when you see numbers that big," Wynn-Stelt said. "It's like I'm pretty much full of Scotchgard. And it makes me angry that they dismiss the importance of blood work."
Varnum pressed both Wolverine and the Kent County Health Department to pay for population-level blood testing.
"It's our bodies, and we have the right to know what's in it," Mcnaughton said. "And I don't think we should have to pay for that because we didn't purposefully put [PFAS] in our bodies."
Wolverine said in a blog post it would not pay for blood tests because they are "neither routine nor recommended in communities addressing potential PFAS impact on drinking water."
The Kent County Health Department said it is first conducting a large-scale PFAS health survey, which has been delayed due to consultation with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
WZZM 13 reached out to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) to see if experts still felt there was not sufficient evidence in Kent County to call for a population-level blood test.
MDHHS released this statement:
The federal government does not have a standard on PFAS blood levels as the science is still evolving. However, in order to proactively respond to any potential health issues, MDHHS is working with the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry within the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Kent County Health Department, to conduct a historical cancer data review, as well as a survey of residents. Further, MDHHS will work with the newly announced Scientific Advisory Committee to the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team to review any available science regarding the health impacts of PFAS and determine additional appropriate courses of action.
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