Toxic tap water investigation: The lives impacted


PLAINFIELD TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — They live at the center of it all, their wells tapping directly into the groundwater flowing away from Wolverine Worldwide’s old House Street dump, where neighbors know their PFAS numbers by heart.

“I’m Jennifer Carney, (I) live on Chandler Drive and my PFAs level was 148.”

Jim Penrod number was 201.

Lisa Ingraham, 10,320.

Seth and Tobyn McNaughton, 1,961.

Meaghan Schweinzger, 117.

Sandy Wynn-Stelt’s well has the highest number: “I live on House Street and my number was 38,000,” she told Target 8.

Big numbers are bad.

Eight residents in the areas hardest hit by Wolverine Worldwide’s spreading PFAS contamination crisis gathered at WOOD TV8’s studio for a Target 8 special report — some who live along House Street NE, right across from Wolverine’s former dump site; some from Chandler Street NE, across US-131 from the dump.

Some had never met before.

Rockford’s giant shoemaker, Wolverine Worldwide, used Scotchgard with PFAS for years to waterproof shoes, then dumped it in sludge on land it owns on House Street NE in Belmont, along with some other sites. Most of the focus is on House Street, where PFAS levels in well water are the highest in the growing crisis.

>>Timeline: History of Wolverine Worldwide and PFAS

The neighbors spoke of their fears — about cancer, thyroid and kidney problems, about the death of a husband; about property values, about the anxiety that comes with waiting, and, for one couple, about the decision to put off having more kids.

“My first number was 27,000,” Wynn-Stelt said of the first test results at her home on House Street. “They all looked very grim, everybody who came to the table, so I knew it wasn’t good. But it’s only after that you realize how serious that is.”

The Environmental Protection Agency’s advisory level for drinking water is 70 parts per trillion. Wynn-Stelt’s water is 542 times that.

A NEIGHBORHOOD VIOLATED; FAMILY PLANNING ON HOLD

Their PFAS numbers — far above what the EPA deems unsafe — are all they know for sure about the toxins in their tap water.

That is part of what scares them.

“We built that house 20 years ago, and I remember when they came up and asked permission to take our water samples, and I thought, I know the well we put in was over 170 feet deep and I thought, go ahead. You know, take your samples. There won’t be any problems,” said Jim Penrod, who lives on House Street. “And then one day, about three weeks later, I just had to go to the hospital to get a CT scan and I’ve been having kidney stone problems, and that very same day, about a half hour after I got home, knock on my door and there’s people from the state of Michigan, there’s people from the county and I looked at them and I said, ‘This isn’t good, is it?’ And it wasn’t, and I sat there, I listened to what they had to say and I really felt violated — to have something like this happen in our neighborhood. ”

A neighborhood of homes built in woods and tucked next to ravines — a perfect place to ditch barrels and old leather hides — across the street from what they thought was a Christmas tree farm. Most of the homes were built years after Wolverine closed its dump.

>>Gallery: Historic photos show Kent Co. dump sites

“Dozens of families moved in after that without any inclination that it was even a dump site, let alone a toxic dump site,” said resident Meaghan Schweinzger. “We thought it was a Christmas tree farm, a pretty, scenic thing, and it’s toxic waste. Until July, when they knocked on our door, we thought it was a Christmas tree farm.”

The neighbors said they feel helpless and cheated.

“Our future is not in our control anymore,” Mary Penrod said.

“We were looking at retiring, wanted to sell our house, our son’s in college now, all those plans came to an immediate halt. Our life is on hold,” added her husband Jim Penrod.

“We can relate to that, too, because we were thinking about having another child and we learned at one of the informational meetings we had that the chemical can stay in your body from two to nine years,” said Tobyn McNaughton, who lives on Chandler with her husband and 1-year-old son Jack. “So if it’s in my blood, we’re not sure if we want to have another child to bring them into that, too. So we’ve put our family planning on hold, which not a lot of people might not have thought this water issue, oh, it’s going to affect your family planning, or your retirement planning, but yeah — it affects a lot of aspects of your life beyond just your water’s bad.”

“Or just your desire to be in the place you wanted to be in until retirement,” added Megan Schweinzger. “Because we’re in the same boat, we wanted to stay, but now I’d really do anything to get out, to be done with it.”

“The bad thing is you can’t sell your house because it’s not worth anything,” responded Lisa Ingraham, who lives on Chandler.

“So, yeah the place that I’d never want to leave, now I want to leave and I literally can’t,” Schweinzger added.

Wynn-Stelt said she doesn’t want to leave, even though she has the highest PFAS levels in town — water she’s been drinking for 24 years.

“I will not let this beat me. I will not give into this. I will not give up my home. I love my home. That was our dream home,” she said.

A HUSBAND’S DEATH, A CHILD’S BLOOD TEST

Wynn-Stelt wonders what her PFAS levels were when she moved there, what they were 10 years ago — long before the scientists started showing up to test area wells this year.

“I have no idea. I don’t understand enough about this to know,” she said. “Did it just get bad? Has it always been bad? Has it gotten better? I don’t know. I wish they knew more about this. I guess that’s the frustration. I hear these stories. I hear her story,” pointing to Seth and Tobyn McNaughton, who’ve put off having more kids, “I know Meaghan’s kids now. I know this and think, ‘It’s one thing for me to want to fight this,’ but I can’t imagine trying to bring up a family in this because you’ve got to think about more than just yourself.”

Chandler Street NE, just across US-131 from the House Street dump, is where Seth and Tobyn McNaughton started a family, in a home set far off the road.

Their 1-year-old son just had his blood tested for PFAS.

“The vial is this big,” said Tobyn McNaughton, indicating about 8 inches. “And I pulled it out of the package and my heart was racing. It’s so much that we have to take from him and mail to California.”

They’ve already mailed it, packed in ice in a cooler.

“They’re just going to get it down on a molecular level and see how much PFAS is in his blood because he’s been drinking this water for a year because he started drinking water when he was 6 months old,” his mom said. “And I was drinking a ton when I was pregnant. I was really trying to be super healthy when I was pregnant and drink a lot of water.”

Neighbors, their attorney and the state Department of Environmental Quality have asked Wolverine to pay for blood tests for those living in the path of PFAS. The company has refused.

“It can send up red flags,” Tobyn McNaughton said of blood tests. “Because the side effects are puberty can be stunted, so maybe when he gets older, we don’t know how that could affect him. Some child development issues, behavior issues are some of the symptoms listed on some of the resources that we have. Plus the variety of cancers that you can get, thyroid problems, so if an otherwise seemingly healthy child ends up with thyroid issues or he’s having some issues when he gets old enough to go through puberty, we might actually know what it’s linked to, why it’s happening. We’re hoping none of those things happen, but they could.”

Now, they must wait for results.

“Waiting, that’s been one of the worst things about this whole thing is waiting for our (well) test results to come back, waiting for our filter to be put in, now waiting for these blood results,” Tobyn McNaughton said. “It builds anxiety because you’re wondering, all the what ifs go through your mind.”

WASHING LAUNDRY IN DIRTY WATER

As Tobyn McNaughton and others spoke, Jenny Carner, who lives on Chandler, wiped away tears.

“It’s upsetting,” she said. “I have two kids, I have a 7-year-old and I have a 14-year-old. We moved in our house seven years ago, when my daughter was 6 months and my son was 7. Now we look at them, and it makes me think, ‘Are they going to have cancer? What kind of problems are they going to have?’ Another side effect is infertility.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say some human studies show PFAS may decrease fertility and affect development of the fetus and child.

“Am I going to be a grandparent?” Carner asked. “Are my kids going to be able to have kids? What kinds of issues are they going to have? Are me and my husband going to have any problems of our own to where my kids are going to lose us and not have us around? The anxiety is so troubling to where like they said, you can’t really even enjoy your day, just even to do your daily tasks. I do the laundry and I’m putting our clothes in and just as a mom to go through that house and try to take care of your family and you’re putting your laundry in and trying to clean it, and you’re looking at your water knowing it’s dirty, and you’re doing the dishes, knowing that your water is dirty, and my daughter brushes her teeth and goes back out into the kitchen to the Culligan to refill her cup to rinse the toothpaste out of the sink because she doesn’t want to touch the dirty water, just to rinse her toothpaste out. It’s just constant anxiety and stress.”

Then, she said, there are her own mysterious health conditions:

“I’ve had unexplained neurological issues over the last two years that kind of came on really rapidly, and between my doctor and my neurologist they really haven’t put their finger on what it came from, so it’s just been trial and error. I’ve had vision problems, nerve problems, numbness, twitching, headaches, so trial and error through medication. Nobody really knows why it came on, but it just really kind of came on really suddenly in the last couple years. So now, we’re looking back and wondering, is this due to the water? So, in my household, I’m the one getting the blood taken.”

So far, nobody can say definitively that PFAS caused somebody’s cancer or made them sick, but everybody agrees drinking Scotchgard is bad.

“That is the challenge. The research is so vague,” Wynn-Stelt said. “It could be this and this and this, and there’s stuff that most Americans have problems with — their thyroid or gout or high cholesterol. As it’s going on you don’t think, ‘Maybe my water is contaminated.’ But now that you know your water is contaminated, you start thinking back to every doctor’s visit, well that was weird, that was weird.”

ANGER, FRUSTRATION AND QUESTIONS

A Wolverine expert says the human health effects are unknown.

But Harvard University says even small amounts are bad for children; the state of Michigan warns against drinking water with any PFAS if you live near a dump; the EPA and CDC both list possible health risks, including cancer.

Then there was a study of nearly 70,000 people in the Ohio River Valley — the biggest such study ever. It found probable links to high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, testicular cancer, kidney cancer, and pregnancy-induced hypertension.

Jenny Carner said she’s both angry and frustrated.

Wolverine had said it learned only recently that the Scotchgard it used to treat shoes, and later dumped, contained PFAS. But Target 8 revealed last month that 3M, the maker of Scotchgard, warned Wolverine in a 1999 letter about the potential hazards of PFAS.

3M reformulated Scotchgard in 2002, three years before the EPA called PFAS a possible carcinogen.

“I moved in this house seven years ago,” Carner said. “It was within that span of time that the folks that work there could have said, ‘This is dangerous, we need to do something, we need to make the public aware, we shouldn’t have people living in the area. We should go and clean up our mess. We know that we ordered that product. We know that we applied that product, we know that we dumped it there, we know that it went into the soil, we know it’s not lined.’”

Added Meaghan Schweinzger: “Sure does seem like there were enough red flags somebody somewhere along the way should have caught it, whether it be the DEQ, or the township or Wolverine, somewhere along the way in the 17 years since they’ve discarded use of the chemical, not even a single person even just considered it?”

Target 8 revealed last month that a Plainfield Township report called the House Street dump an “environmental issue” in 2004.

“And they all knew that site was bad,” Wynn-Stelt said. “They all knew it was toxic. And I didn’t expect them to come in and give us all home filters then, but I lose sleep thinking had they come 10 years ago and said your water’s bad, I could have made some decisions then, and my husband could have made some decisions then that maybe would have changed things, maybe not.”

“At least given you a chance,” Tobyn McNaughton said to Wynn-Stelt.

“That’s right,” Wynn-Stelt answered. “My husband died a year and a half ago of liver cancer. If it had bought me three months, I would give anything to have three months with him, and they didn’t give me a chance. They didn’t give me a chance to do that.”

>>Full coverage inside woodtv.com: Toxic tap water investigation

While animal studies show PFAS can harm liver function, nothing connects it to liver cancer. The Ohio River Valley study found no such link.

But Wynn-Stelt said drinking Scotchgard for perhaps two decades couldn’t have helped.

If somebody had told her about the toxins years ago, she said she could have started drinking bottled water years ago.

“You logically say, ‘Nah,'” when asked about whether PFAS could have contributed to her husband’s death, she said. “But it’s at 1 a.m. when you wake up and there’s nobody there to tell you everything’s going to be OK that you think to yourself, ‘What if? What if they had told me 10 years ago your water may be toxic? Your water may be dangerous or your water may be bad.’”

Her husband, Joel, was a Kent County protective services worker.

“He was a character,” she said. “He loved books, loved reading, he loved toys, he collected toys. He was my rock, and I think that’s the hardest part of this is we were really good together. He was like really, really, smart and really analytical, and he would have thought through this in a heartbeat and I was a little more, less reactive emotionally, and a little more positive, and so we balanced each other out. I don’t have my rock here now to help me through this. It’s literally me doing this on my own every day.”

“It’s in the front of my mind,” she continued. “It’s everywhere in my mind. That had they told me. I think I just feel sad about it, because they robbed me of something, and I’m not just saying Wolverine, I’m saying the whole system, the whole thing, DEQ, Plainfield Township, Wolverine, all of them. What if I could have had more time? What if it didn’t need to happen or it did need to happen, what if it didn’t need to happen then? And, if I had had that, but everybody that was involved got selfish, it seems like. They didn’t want to bring it up because they didn’t want the ramifications, but now the ramifications are, I lost my husband, and people have kids, they’ve got to be scared about because people just didn’t want to do the right thing. That’s all I wanted people to do, was step up and do the right thing.”

Wynn-Stelt said she’s had her own medical issues, including thyroid problems.

In this neighborhood, the thyroid problems aren’t limited to Wynn-Stelt.

“In our household, we have thyroid, high cholesterol and possible immune system issues, and there’s three of us in our household,” said Mary Penrod, who lives down the street from Wynn-Stelt. “Our son spent his entire childhood in our home drinking our well water which we thought was from Mother Nature, healthy and clean. So who knows what the future brings, or will bring.”

FEARS BEYOND THEIR NEIGHBORHOOD

For Lisa Ingraham, who lives on Chandler, the stress has led her to take anti-anxiety pills.

“I just can’t handle it anymore,” she said. “It’s like you wait so much. You wait for them to test your water, you wait to get water that you can drink, you wait for your test results to come back, and this is a little over a two-month period of time, and we finally got our water filter installed today, now we have to wait to get our water tested again before we can drink the water. So, it’s so much waiting and anxiety and between. And you know with my son, it’s like he’s away at college, but he drank the water for 10 years, too, and I don’t want anything bad to come to him out of this. It just all builds up. It’s not good.”

She worries about her own health and her husband’s:

“Are we going to develop cancer down the road? Are we going to develop thyroid problems down the road? You can’t help but think about that kind of stuff.”

Wolverine has said it’s doing everything it can to help, though it hasn’t agreed to pay for blood tests or to extend city water. It expects to spend more than $3 million this year on its response — on testing, clean-up, providing water filtration systems at homes. For that, these residents are thankful.

“That is pretty rapid, a couple months turnaround,” said Jenny Carner, who recently got her whole-house filter installed. “But then I kind of go back to that whole you know, you could have really told me, and I really wouldn’t have ever moved into my house and would have never had this problem, so I keep going back and forth.”

“There’s a part of me that says, ‘Are they doing it because it was the right thing to do or are they doing that because Ken Kolker and every other media story jumped on this or because all of us have signed with lawyers that are really good at flicking people and is that what motivated them?’ Or would they have just done that if Meaghan and I would have showed up to their door in July and said, ‘We’ve got a problem, give us some water?’ I doubt it.”

Now these neighbors worry not only about each other, but also about the entire Rockford area.

“I’m just wondering what the final impact will be on our whole community, not just our neighborhoods, with the number of possible dump sites that there are in our area,” Mary Penrod said. “We live in a beautiful community. That’s why we’re here.”

RESOURCES FOR BELMONT RESIDENTS:

If you are eligible for a whole-house water filtration system from Wolverine Worldwide, you can call 616.866.5627 or email HouseStreet@wwwinc.com.

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality Environmental Assistance Center can be reached at 1.800.662.9278.

Websites with additional information on the contamination: