BELMONT, Mich. -- Residents in parts of Belmont could be without clean drinking water for as long as two years while DEQ officials investigate the presence of a little known but potentially dangerous contaminant that made its way into people’s wells.
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, commonly referred to as PFAS, are a large group of man-made chemicals that have been in use since the 1950s. Only recently have manufactures begun to phase out their use of PFAS in products, but you can still find them in household items like non-stick pans with Teflon, stain resistant like Scotchguard, water-resistant clothing like Gor-Tex, cosmetics, paints, and cleaning products.
Before the EPA tightened dumping regulations in the 1970s, Wolverine World Wide, a West Michigan-based shoe manufacturer used PFAS in materials used to waterproof their shoes. At the time, they used an undeveloped lot near the affected homes to – perfectly legally – dump their materials, including PFAS. When regulations constricted, they stopped using the site to dump, but David O’Donnell with the Michigan DEQ says the damage may already have been done.
“We were creating problems not just then, but for future generations,” said O’Donnell. “It is something we’re just looking for now. It’s not something that was on everybody’s radar even 5 or 10 years ago. This is a new thing.”
And because of that, regulators and researchers don’t know much about the effects of PFAS. According to information from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, PFAS can cause higher cholesterol levels, weaken the immune system, increase risk of cancer, and affect growth, learning, and behavior of infants of young children.
Of the 21 homes already tested for PFAS in the Belmont area, 13 were found to have shown the presence of the chemicals and 7 homes showed results above the EPA lifetime recommended level of 70-parts-per-trillion, some exhibiting as much as 65-times that level.
Because the threat of PFAS is so new, the Kent County Health Department can’t offer the expensive testing needed to detect them in individual water supplies. They’re planning to host a public meeting regarding the issue in the next few weeks.
DEQ officials like O’Donnell are recommending people avoid consuming the water, but note they can still bathe and wash clothes in it as long as it’s not ingested.
Wolverine is doing their due diligence, providing affected homeowners with filters and bottled water while they and environmental officials determine the true source and spans of the contamination. They issued FOX17 the following statement:
"For more than a century, Wolverine Worldwide has been committed to the communities in which its employees live and work, especially the Rockford and Greater Grand Rapids area. Consistent with this commitment, Wolverine is currently working closely with state and local officials to collect data from our former tannery in Rockford and the House Street area to better understand the possible presence of PFOA and PFOS at these two sites.
Immediately after Wolverine first learned that PFOS may have been present in the 3M Scotchgard® applied to leather at its former tannery site in Rockford, the Company developed and submitted to the Department of Environmental Quality a proposed plan to voluntarily sample this site for not only PFOS, but also for PFOA and other PFAS compounds. The Company received the DEQ’s comments on this plan last month and promptly scheduled sampling, which, due to the water table levels and other geologic factors, was first able to take place this week. Since the 2010 closure of our Rockford tannery, Wolverine Worldwide has continued to work closely with state and local officials in monitoring the site.
Earlier this summer, Wolverine learned that PFOA and PFOS were detected in water from a well in the House Street area, near property owned by Wolverine. This property, which Wolverine formerly operated as a disposal area licensed and regulated by the State, has not been determined to be a source of either PFOA or PFOS, but given our longstanding commitment to this community Wolverine has been working with the DEQ and Kent County Health Department over the past several weeks to test samples from the area. In addition, Wolverine has taken the initiative to assist homeowners in the House Street area by providing bottled water and water filtration systems certified for these substances.
Wolverine submitted a proposed workplan to the DEQ to better understand the possible presence of PFOA and PFOS at its House Street property, which has recently been approved. Preliminary work under this plan has already commenced, and additional on-site work is scheduled to commence on September 5, the earliest date available.
Consistent with its long history in the community, Wolverine is committed to working with all appropriate agencies in their efforts to determine the status of these sites, and to keep the community informed along the way."