HOW WE GOT HERE: The Pfas Water Crisis is Here


You can’t see them, you can’t smell them, you can’t taste them, but about one and a half million Michigan residents are drinking water
tainted with these toxic chemicals. This is in the same state where Flint residents were lead poisoned by drinking water. MAN: What do we want? CROWD: Clean water! MAN: When do we want it? CROWD: Now! But this time the poisoned water
touches dozens of Michigan communities and scientists are still determining
exactly how dangerous these chemicals can be. Jack McNaughton was 2-years-old
when his family got some scary news. TOBYN: Our well got tested the second week of September. Seth took the call and I heard him say, “Can you repeat that?” BINGHAM: Their home was close to a plume of PFS moving underground from a long-forgotten industrial dump near Rockford, Michigan. PFAS are forever chemicals they don’t biodegrade. They accumulate in your body and they’re linked to an increased
risk of cancer and other chronic diseases. TOBYN: We stopped drinking our water altogether trying to remember to not cook with it. SETH: It’s difficult to break
that routine of thinking your water’s safe. BINGHAM: The EPA says two of the most
dangerous types of PFAS chemicals shouldn’t be consumed at more than 70
parts per trillion. The McNaughton’s learned their toddlers
spent the first two years of his life drinking water that was contaminated at
more than 5,000 parts per trillion. A blood test showed he had an astonishing 484 thousand parts per trillion in his body. TOBYN: And that’s probably first time I
burst into tears because… …he’s so little and I don’t know what’s
gonna happen to him. PFAS stands for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. The man-made chemicals use a strong carbon and fluorine bond to repel
water grease and oil and resist heat. REDISKE: The fluorine carbon bond is very hard to break and it spreads faster than most other pollutants. They accumulate in
human tissue and in fish and things like that. BINGHAM: The list of products that contain or once contained PFS is long and surprisingly familiar. Scotchgard,
Gore-Tex clothing, Teflon pans, Stainmaster carpet, dental floss,
microwave popcorn bag,s and even fast food wrappers. At military bases and
transportation facilities fire fighters have long used foam containing PFAS
to control fuel fires. That foam plus industrial wastes and landfills
have contaminated groundwater across the state. The chemicals were never meant to
be consumed but they’ve made their way to city water supplies and private wells.
They’re even in some lakes and rivers where fish are no longer safe to eat. REDISKE: PFAS binds to a key protein in your blood that carries the antibodies. If you
have higher levels you’re more likely to have certain symptoms and high
cholesterol is one of them, immunosuppression issues, higher
incidents of kidney and testicular cancer, there’s some child developmental
issues and there’s pregnancy related issues to hypertension and also
the ability to get pregnant. SETH: My cholesterol was like high I thought, “That’s weird I’m pretty active and I don’t have cholesterol problems in my
family.” TOBYN: And then for Jack he had 13 vials of blood drawn out of him and they found
two of his vaccinations were ineffective. He gets sick a lot more often than his
peers in his class at school and then for me, we can’t positively link it but we had originally put our family planning and
hold when we found out about our well water. Since we started trying again
but I had two miscarriages in a row. The contamination source near the
McNaughton’s home points to Wolverine World Wide. A 2.2 billion dollar company
behind shoe brands like Hush Huppy, Merrill, Sperry and Stride Rite. REDISKE: Hush Puppy shoes which were a very revolutionary shoe in the 50s involved
taking pigs and then treating it with Scotchgard to
make it waterproof. Scotchguard was a miracle product that waterproofed things and it also made things stain resistant. Tanneries are very inefficient. For every
1,000 grams of leather they produce they produce about 850 grams of waste and
that has to be disposed of somewhere. A community group concerned about
historical chemical use at the Wolverine site spent years searching for evidence
of contamination. REDISKE: In 2012 they actually came to my office and brought me a bunch of
maps that they hand drew with where the contaminants were. Pictures of the hides
sticking out of the side of the stream banks and then one of our citizens found
out that there was this disposal going on at House Street and there were houses
built right around the disposal area. We confronted the DEQ with a memo about House Street and about the tannery being a potential PFAS site they didn’t really
take an issue of it until 2017. BINGHAM: In a statement Wolverine World Wide says that it’s worked to ensure all affected residents have access to safe drinking
water. Its efforts include providing water filters and bottled water to homeowners and working with regulators to conduct environmental investigations
at polluted sites. What’s particularly infuriating for Seth McNaughton is how long public officials suspected his water was contaminated before they
tested it. SETH: Well they knew something was up. They were testing wells months, half a year at least, before we found out about it from lawyers not from the government
officials or anyone and it’s just ridiculous. BINGHAM: Rockford is far from the only place in Michigan where PFAS are lurking they’ve been found in dozens of sites
across the state. In Oscoda they’re flowing from a closed Air Force Base. The
chemicals have affected drinking water in communities like Parchment, Ann Arbor and Plainfield Township and new contamination sites are still being
discovered. It seems like there’s a new one every month. There are efforts underway to address
Michigan’s PFAS problem. What compelled you to install filtration systems here?
— There was a lot of public outcry and so we thought it would be a good idea to
try to treat for this. That’s why we are doing this carbon filtration projects
The pilot project for the state of Michigan. As the water passes through the
carbon the carbon has an affinity to absorb the PFAS. It does a very good job
at that. So far our tap is a non-detect for PFAS. That is a great thing. — But
the federal government doesn’t have enforceable standards for PFAS in
drinking water. In early 2019 the EPA rolled out a plan to address PFAS
contamination. But it could be years before guidelines are in place so states
are taking matters into their own hands. Some are suing chemical manufacturers.
Others are setting standards for PFAS in drinking water and even in lakes and
rivers. Michigan’s new governor Gretchen Whitmer
has called clean drinking water a fundamental human right. We the people
have a right to know why that report was ignored for six years. Why we’re just
finding out about the magnitude of PFAS poisoning in our state. BINGHAM: In March she ordered the State Department of Environmental Quality to begin establishing drinking water standards for PFAS. The standards can’t come soon
enough for the McNaughton’s. My neighbors and I were like rallying
people to like email their representatives and we went to D.C. They
had a PFAS hearing there. SETH: Because we want the word to get out there. We want
it to be on the forefront and people to be aware of what they’re drinking.
BINGHAM: For now, like at least 500 of their neighbors, the McNaughton’s are drinking
bottled or filtered water at home. Our well is still highly contaminated. We have a whole house filter but we have a couple of neighbors whose filters have been
breaking down. We just don’t trust it. BINGHAM: They’re also suing Wolverine. So is the state which wants the company to pay millions for new water lines in polluted
neighborhoods so kids like Jack can someday safely drink the water at their
own homes. TOBYN: I’m happy to see Jack growing up and he’s so smart and he talks so
much. He’s gonna be growing up and this is still gonna be in a system. Hopefully
there’ll be more studies by then and more information but… SETH: We want to… TOBYN: …get our mind off things. SETH: Yeah and have fun while we can cause we don’t know what our future holds. TOBYN: We’re just ready to be normal but I don’t think that’s ever
going to happen. This episode largely focused on PFAS
issues on the west side of Michigan but new sites are popping up all over the
country as environmental agencies step up testing. If you’re concerned about PFAS visit MLive.com/howwegothere to learn more about the chemical and what
government agencies are doing to address the problem.

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