Varnum expands promise to pay for clients' blood tests for PFAS

The Grand Rapids law firm wants to make sure everyone who feels they are at risk, gets tested. But state officials do not think blood tests for PFAS are required for Kent County yet.

GRAND RAPIDS, MICH. - Varnum Law in Grand Rapids expanded its offer to cover the costs of blood tests for any of its clients in northern Kent County affected by drinking water contaminated with toxic PFAS chemicals linked to Wolverine Worldwide waste.

The firm represents 200 people in Plainfield and Algoma Townships who have either contaminated wells or consumed Plainfield municipal water containing PFAS. Varnum initially offered to cover blood tests for some of its clients, now its extending the offer further. 

"People have been asking for it for months," said Aaron Phelps, an attorney with Varnum. "It just hasn't been a real viable option unless you...wanted to spend a lot of money and...wanted to jump through all the hoops of getting your doctor to order it, etc. So hopefully we'll streamline that, make it easier, more efficient and less costly."

Varnum has filed more than 35 lawsuits in Kent County Circuit Court against Wolverine Worldwide for damages related to dumping and water contamination. More than 100 people have requested blood tests from the firm. Varnum will advance initial costs, but will be requesting reimbursement from Wolverine Worldwide as part of its lawsuits against the company. 

Residents want the tests, and Varnum is paying for them after local health officials and Wolverine Worldwide declined, Phelps said. 

"We don't have the cooperation of [Kent County] Health Department," he said. "The residents have made their position clear. Wolverine is not going to change its mind. And so we'll do it without them, and people will still get the information." 

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Officials from the Kent County Health Department (KCHD) and Michigan Department of Human Services (MDHHS) said blood tests are not clinically conclusive or recommended at this time. 

There is not currently sufficient evidence to suggest population-level blood testing is needed in Kent County, said Dr. Eden Wells, chief medical executive at MDHHS. 

A blood test study conducted in the mid-2000s of nearly 70,000 people in the Ohio River Valley found links between people in areas of high exposure to PFOA/C8, a chemical within the PFAS family, and illnesses such as kindey and testicular cancer, liver and thyroid problems, high cholesterol and infertility. 

"In the C8 study, many of those people showed very high levels [of PFAS in their blood]," Wells said. "But with the blood test, I, or any other physician at this point, won't be able to say, 'This is your risk of cancer because of this blood level.' The science isn't there." 

KCHD said it will conduct a health survey of people affected by the PFAS contamination sometime in 2018. 

Nearly 600 people in Kent County have participated in a health study being conducted by private citizens from the Facebook group "Demand Action From Plainfield Township."

"Six illnesses associated with high levels of PFAS were the highest on the [survey] chart," said Cody Angell, who created the group. "Now is that a direct correlation? I don't know yet." 

Citing health experts, Wolverine Worldwide said it denied to pay for blood tests because "blood testing is neither routine nor recommended in communities addressing potential PFAS impact on drinking water.”

There are many variables, but this information will be helpful to assess the scope of the contamination problem in Kent County, Phelps said. 

"These are just the very few test results that come in," he said. "We will review those with our experts and make decisions based on that information." 

Varnum will also make reduced-cost blood tests available to non-clients at their expense. 

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