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Kent County PFAS cancer study ‘doesn’t bring definitive answers, brings more questions,’ says MDHHS

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. -- A cancer study conducted by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services and the Kent County Health Department does not draw any conclusions about the effects of PFAS on human health.

The MDHHS and KCHD released its review of cancer incidence data on Tuesday afternoon. Officials conducting the study examined cases of invasive cancers from 2000 to 2014 in the communities of Rockford, Plainfield Township, Cannonsburg and Belmont. This study began in November 2017, according to Kory Groetsch with the MDHHS.

According to the DHHS, with the exception of prostate cancer, the study "found no consistent elevation in cancer incidence for the selected areas of northern Kent County."

The observed cases of prostate cancer in these areas is "significantly higher" than expected. During four-year increments between 2000-2014, there were on average 46 more cases of prostate cancer in men than expected. However, Dr. Eden Wells with the MDHHS says that prostate cancer is the most common form of cancer among men and that they cannot draw conclusions from this data because it is such a small amount of cases.

“I would not want to in this case, people taking away anything but just recognition that we’ve went and looked and you don’t see anything dramatic today," Groetsch says.

However, the limitations of the study listed in its summary state the study does not have the ability to draw any scientific conclusions about the link between cancer and PFAS.

KCHD Health Officer Adam London says the study is "incomplete and insufficient" for determining the impact of that link or if it even exists. Officials say that other factors in addition to PFAS consumption also need to be considered in someone's cancer diagnosis, like age and lifestyle.

“It is not the end. It’s not the conclusion," London says. "It’s merely one bit of data, one finding that we would like to share with you in an effort to be as transparent and also to talk about what this means.”

Wells says this study can generate hypotheses but not answer any questions. She compared the study to "taking a snapshot but there’s no context to it.”

Officials with both departments acknowledge that this study was a first step in years of research to come. Groetsch says the next step is to participate in an "exposure assessment" with the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, which will sample the blood of people living in areas contaminated with PFAS.

The MDHHS says eight of these areas are near military bases, like the former Wurtsmith Air Force base, where the ATSDR is already investigating.

This exposure assessment could be a major step in determining if PFAS causes certain cancers and other diseases, rather than finding a correlation, like the KCDH and MDHHS study was looking for.

Groetsch says the department's goal is to have 800 participants from affected areas in West Michigan in the assessment. He says blood tests will start this fall.

Groetsch says the departments are not yet sure what the exact cost of the exposure assessment will be but the budget for it is over $1 million. He calls the assessment a "very expensive undertaking" and said it will take several years to complete.

According to recent studies, there is evidence to suggest that PFAS have adverse health effects on humans and animals. According to the EPA, evidence shows that exposure to PFAS can cause reproductive, developmental, liver, kidney and immunological effects in laboratory animals.

A new ATSDR study calls the EPA's advisory limit of 70 parts per trillion, which is also the state of Michigan's legal limit, into question, stating it may be far too high.

Wolverine Worldwide, the company which dumped its waste containing PFAS in these areas for decades has been testing the water in homes near former dump sites over the last year. A representative for Wolverine released the following statement to FOX 17 regarding the MDHHS study:

"The MDHHS report released today is the first step in an ongoing and long-term scientific analysis of the potential health impacts of PFAS exposure in our community.  The MDHHS report found no consistent elevation in cancer incidence for the selected areas of northern Kent County, except for prostate cancer.  As Michigan’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Eden Wells explained, MDHHS is “not convinced” that the elevated incidence for prostate cancer is fully explained by PFAS, and MDHHS could not “make that linkage” between prostate cancer and PFAS.  The lack of definite results presented today underscores how complicated these issues continue to be.  As MDHHS notes, the ability to draw any more specific conclusions is constrained by the limitations of the study."

According to the MDHHS, efforts are newly underway to evaluate health problems in the City of Parchment in Kalamazoo County, which has been under a state of emergency after extremely high levels of PFAS were detected in the municipal water system.

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