ROCKFORD, Mich. (WOOD) — The old color photograph shows me and my big sister, Theresa, sitting next to WOOD TV cowboy Buck Barry on our porch in Rockford.
That was in the 1960s, when the city of Rockford was still getting its drinking water from the Rogue River, a few blocks downstream from Wolverine Worldwide’s riverside tannery, which used Scotchgard containing PFAS to treat pigskin. To this day, the abandoned tannery site is drenched in PFAS, which flows into the river. So there’s a good chance I drank it.
Fifty years later, as PFAS has spread into hundreds of wells outside Rockford, a debate is growing over the need to test residents’ blood for the likely carcinogen.
Health officials say it won’t help with individual treatment, though it could help with research.
Only a few have been tested so far in Kent County, with shocking results, including a woman with 5 million parts per trillion, which some health experts say is the highest they’ve ever heard.
PUTTING BLOOD TESTS TO THE TEST
My PFAS blood test started with a phone call to Vista Analytical Laboratory in California, recommended by the Kent County Health Department. It’s one of the few labs in the nation that tests for PFAS in blood.
Getting a PFAS blood test isn’t very complicated. The health department will provide steps to follow for testing, even though it doesn’t recommend it.
But it’s pricey. Mine was $675. They want the money upfront. Insurance won’t cover it.
“How long before the tests are done, generally?” I asked Jennifer of Vista Analytical, who answered the phone.
“We’ve been very busy for the past several months for this type of testing. Worst-case scenario, two months,” she said.
“Is it like you’re busy because of right around this area, or is it all over the country?” I asked.
“It’s all over the country,” she said.
She had no idea which local lab would draw my blood.
“I’ve heard from other people in different parts of the country saying they’re refusing, they’re not doing those blood draws, so I’m so sorry, I don’t know where folks are going in your area,” she said.
But the Kent County Health Department did: Spectrum Health on 10 Mile Road NE in Rockford, conveniently located in the PFAS zone.
In a few days, after I got a required doctor’s order, the kit arrived — a small Styrofoam cooler not nearly big enough for a six-pack, a test tube for my serum and ice packs.
“I’m here to get a PFAS test,” I told the woman at the front desk at the Spectrum Health office.
Her biggest question: Were the ice packs frozen? They were. The tests will work only if the serum stays cold.
Forty-five minutes after my blood was drawn, after waiting for Spectrum to use a centrifuge to spin out the serum, I was rushing off to make my delivery overnight to Vista.
PFAS BLOOD TESTS NOT RECOMMENDED
Only a handful of people in Kent County’s growing PFAS zones have gotten the test done, in part because the health department says it’s not necessary and won’t pay for it.
“What that has largely told us is that blood testing is not very useful for us,” Kent County Health Department Administrative Health Officer Adam London said.
Most health officials — the county, state, the feds — have said PFAS blood tests won’t make it any easier for doctors to treat patients. They say blood tests aren’t needed to prove you have PFAS in your system as long as you drank contaminated water.
“You’re going to have a measurable, a significant level of this in your system,” London said. “If you’ve been drinking that water, that’s pretty much a given.”
Just knowing they were drinking tainted water should lead residents to consult with their doctors, even without blood tests, to monitor for possible diseases, London said.
“They can use that information to have a screening protocol in place for the six issues, the six health items that have been linked to PFAS exposure,” London said. “But they can’t actually prescribe any sort of pharmaceutical help to lower those levels.”
PFAS accumulates in the body and stays there for years.
“I would never stop anybody from getting their blood tested,” Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Chief Medical Executive Eden Wells said. “It’s just limiting right now for physicians or health care providers to estimate what the health impacts may be.”
“There’s no clinical treatment yet or knowledge about if that level’s going to actually cause a direct outcome in the future,” Wells said.
RESIDENTS WANT TESTS TO FIND ANSWERS
Jim Watts isn’t buying health officials’ arguments.
He has lived near Wolverine Worldwide’s House Street dump, which is blamed for much of the PFAS contamination in area wells, for 30 years, but has only low levels of PFAS in his well — at least that’s what his one and only recent test showed.
>>Inside woodtv.com: Complete coverage of the toxic tap water investigation
Blood tests, he said, might show if his well’s PFAS levels were much higher before, when testing wasn’t done, and whether to be on alert for health problems.
“If you look at the map at how all this is spreading out, we’re right dead in the center,” Watts said. “We could have been much higher in the past, we just don’t know. It was never tested for that.”
He wants blood tests for his family, especially his wife, Trinh, who has environmental asthma. He wonders if it’s from using a humidifier for years, filling their bedroom with PFAS-tainted mist.
“I think they (blood tests) should be given to those that want them because how else are you going to know what’s in your body if you don’t test for it?” Watts said. “I think basically the health department and Wolverine should step up to the plate and deal with this. I think they owe it to the residents here in this community.”
In West Virginia, doctors tested 69,000 people for PFAS after a crisis there, establishing probable links to six diseases: Testicular and kidney cancers, ulcerative colitis, thyroid problems, high cholesterol and hypertension in pregnancy. It also led to a $670 million settlement with DuPont.
But the PFAS levels in the Belmont and Algoma Township areas are much higher than they were in West Virginia.
“Everybody who’s in that area (northern Kent County) needs to be tested and followed, blood-tested and followed,” said Dr. Paul Brooks, who oversaw the West Virginia testing.
“What you’re up against is getting enough data in large enough numbers in front of a court, if you’re going to get compensated and get cleanup and all those things,” Brooks continued. “I don’t see any other way you can go.”
The Varnum law firm, which has filed more than 70 lawsuits against Wolverine on behalf of northern Kent County homeowners, has paid for most blood testing so far here.
“This isn’t lawyers asking for it just for a legal case,” Varnum attorney Aaron Phelps said. “This is residents asking for it because they want to know and it’s doctors asking for it because they think it would be helpful.”
“IF YOU HAVE DATA, YOU CAN MAKE DECISIONS”
Sandy Wynn-Stelt, who lives across from Wolverine’s old polluted House Street dump, has 5 million parts per trillion of PFAS in her blood, the most local and state health officials have ever heard of.
Her well tested at 38,000 ppt — 542 times the state’s legal limit for drinking water.
“I’ve always said if you have data, you can make decisions,” Wynn-Stelt said. “Data is what should drive decisions, not emotions, so if we have the data, then we know what we need to do next. But to leave us here with no data, with not knowing what’s going on, then we start reacting out of fear and that’s not good for anybody.”
She drank the water for 24 years. Her husband died of cancer. She’s had thyroid problems. Now, she said, her doctor knows what else to look for.
“I sure may die of something totally unrelated, but at least I’m going to be able to know confidently that I looked at all the things that we do know are connected, so I can address those quickly,” Wynn-Stelt said.
Tobyn McNaughton was shocked when local health officials said blood tests weren’t needed. Her 20-month-old son, Jack, who is frequently sick with colds and ear infections, has 484,000 ppt in his blood, almost as much as the groundwater at Wolverine’s old tannery.
“Saying that these things aren’t necessary, it’s hard to hear those words because I feel like everything having to do with Jack’s health is necessary,” his mom said.
In Pennsylvania, the state hopes to spend $350,000 for limited blood testing after a PFAS crisis was discovered three years ago.
“I feel jealous that there’s other health departments in the U.S. that are jumping on this and doing different things, and I don’t know from our health department,” McNaughton said. “I just feel like a couple informational videos and a couple town halls.
“I feel that we have something here that needs to be dug into more, especially with one person being the highest in the country and then a child that’s super high and growing still.”
She said her son’s toxicologist is using her son’s test results.
“The toxicologist said for the rest of Jack’s life he’s under his surveillance,” she said. “He will always be looking into this, checking on him, monitoring him. He said, ‘However long you need me, his whole life, I will be surveilling and watching out for him.'”
WAITING ON RESULTS
As for my test, the results won’t be in until March.
The question is, has 50 years been enough time to get rid of PFAS, if I ever had high levels? Some PFAS compounds have a half-life of nine years, which means it takes that long for half of it to leave the body. That’s if you stop PFAS cold-turkey.
Will I have the same low levels of the average American? PFAS used to be in Teflon, sprayed on furniture and carpeting, coated fast food wrappers. Almost everybody has some in them. The average American, the CDC says, has 8,400 ppt of PFAS in their blood.
Kent County Health Department Administrative Health Officer Adam London said he’s curious to learn my results.
When I was in my early 20s, doctors found a lump on my thyroid and removed half of it. It was benign. My mom suffered thyroid cancer when she was in her mid-20s.
“I would expect you’re going to have a measurable amount of PFAS,” London said. “I’ll be fascinated to hear from you if you’re willing to share those when you get those.”
RESOURCES FOR PLAINFIELD AND ALGOMA TOWNSHIP 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: