Michigan Department of Environmental Quality(OSCADA, Mich.) — On a December morning two years ago, Anthony Spaniola’s wife looked out the window of their lakefront cabin in the northern Michigan town of Oscada and told him it had snowed.
But the foam whipping around his property in the wind wasn’t snow.
Spaniola would later learn it was actually a chemical-laced substance that had formed on the surface of nearby Van Etten Lake. After testing the foam, state officials ultimately confirmed a connection to chemical compounds once used at a nearby Air Force base to extinguish jet-fuel fires.
Spaniola and his neighbors initially were told the foam was safe, but a month later were warned to steer clear and keep their pets and kids away from it. He sent pictures to local reporters and began reading about chemical compounds referred to as “PFAS” linked to health risks by some experts.
Spaniola has since concluded the contamination wasn’t an isolated incident.
“As I’m coming to the realization that this is a massive, widespread problem, they’re just coming back matter-of-factly like, ‘Yeah, you’re right,” he said of state officials.
Oscoda, and Michigan, are not unique. Communities around the country have discovered high levels of PFAS chemicals from military bases or manufacturing sites in water tested over the last few years.
The Environmental Protection Agency, which under President Donald Trump has rolled back a significant number of federal regulations, is expected to soon release a new national plan to address PFAS.
Whereas Trump officials often speak of government overreach and burdensome regulations, several members of Congress have said that if the EPA doesn’t set stricter limits on manufacturing chemicals like PFAS, they will push for legislation that will.
The issue is so contentious that Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has threatened to stall acting EPA chief Andrew Wheeler’s nomination to become administrator if the agency doesn’t do more. Communities in Schumer’s home state of New York are also dealing with high levels of PFAS contamination.
“We have one more chance to get the federal government to take a look and put out regulations about PFOA and PFOS, but the signs don’t look good,” Schumer said at a press conference last week. “I met with the nominee, Mr. Wheeler, and I asked him to put out these regulations, and he said he’s not sure he would do it.”
The EPA has said previously it could change the official designation of some types of PFAS chemicals to “hazardous,” triggering more requirements to clean them up. But more recently, Wheeler has said he could not commit to setting mandatory limits on the chemicals when it comes to drinking water.
How a scenic lake community became contaminated
PFAS, which stands for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, can refer to hundreds of chemicals, including the kind linked to the foam on Van Etten Lake — PFOS and PFOA.
In addition to military firefighting foam, which is still used today, PFAS chemicals are used in a variety of household items like carpets, nonstick cookware and food packaging.
The chemicals are so common that recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show almost everyone in the U.S. has a measurable amount of the chemicals in their blood.
In Oscoda, authorities tracked the contamination of Van Etten Lake to Wurtsmith Air Force Base, which closed in 1993. The base, like many other Air Force installations, used a specialized foam to put out fires.
PFOS and PFOA in that foam infiltrated drinking water wells on the base, leached into the groundwater and spread to a 8-mile plume that contaminated a nearby marsh, the Au Sable River, Van Etten Lake and Lake Huron, a source of drinking water for hundreds of thousands of people.
Michigan began testing the Air Force base for PFAS and related chemicals in 2010. Two years later, a state environmental agency scientist warned of contamination, but most state and local officials were unaware of the findings until 2017, according to the state auditor’s office.
Property near Oscoda, including Spaniola’s cabin, eventually was classified as inhabiting a “zone of concern” over the chemical plume in October 2016.
It wasn’t until 2017 — seven years after the base testing and after a group of high school students visiting Van Etten Lake reported seeing the strange foam — that a Michigan task force was flown in and authorities expanded testing to nearby bodies of water.
Residents are still being advised not to eat fish from the Au Sable River or eat deer hunted in the area because of concerns linked to PFAS contamination.
Those restrictions are tough in a town like Oscoda, where locals work as lifeguards in the summer and eat fish caught in the Au Sable River. Seasonal visitors and outdoor activities like hunting and fishing are part of the local economy.
Meanwhile, recent research shows exposure to PFAS can contribute to immune system disorders and, at higher levels, to kidney disease, thyroid problems and even some kinds of cancer.
The science around this class of chemicals isn’t advanced enough to link exposure to a diagnosis of a specific health problem, but toxicologist Richard DeGrandchamp said there is enough evidence to justify residents’ concerns.
“For this particular group of compounds, they insidiously attack the immune system,” said DeGrandchamp, who teaches toxicology and epidemiology at the University of Colorado and co-authored the 2012 report about the problems in Michigan. “And, unfortunately, many of our children living in the U.S. right now probably have immunocompromised immune systems.”
Cathy Wusterbarth, who helped form an advocacy group called Need Our Water, or NOW, said she worked as a lifeguard on the lake for years when she was younger and also worked on the water as a civilian employee for the Air Force.
Wusterbarth said she was diagnosed with breast cancer and rheumatoid arthritis the same year, when she was 28 — conditions she thinks are due to her exposure to PFAS-related chemicals.
Wusterbarth recently attended the State of the Union as a guest of Rep. Dan Kildee, who represents Oscoda and Flint, in a bid to bring attention to the contamination. Kildee recently launched a PFAS task force to help inform …read more
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