Citizens' citizens slipped pollution from the Michigan factory one hundred years, with national implications Science

A small group of Michigan residents, including (left) Lynn McIntosh, A. J. Birkbeck, Janice Tompkins, and Rick Rediske, traced widespread corruption from a former dancer.


By Sara Talpos

ROCKFORD, MICHIGAN—For more than a century, significant tanning here on the banks of the Rogue River has made leather used to make some of the most popular shoes in the country. The poppy arose in the factory, but this city enabled about 6000 people to be successful. "That's the smell of money," said some of the locals.

In 2009, however, the owner of the tannery, Wolverine Worldwide, based here, encouraged the shoe trade owner to close the facility. In an application for state funds in 2010 to help redevelop the 6-hectare site, which sits outside a picturesque business district, lawyers who represent the company said: "There is no known corruption on the property."

Lynn McIntosh, a piano teacher and writer who has lived only a block from the tannery for more than 25 years. The statement was “lagalese laced with hogwash,” she said thinking when she read her. The banners use a hazardous chemical stew to change raw hides in leather, she knew, and sometimes left her corruption behind her. For that reason and for other reasons, McIntosh and others asked city and state officials to request a comprehensive environmental study on the site before it was redeveloped.

Their plea was reimbursed, so she and a small alliance bond launched their own investigation. The group, which identified itself as Citizens of Concern on Responsible Improvement (CCRR), collected maps, which were registered in newspaper archives, and filed applications for public records. Members talked to scientists about tanning chemicals and employed an environmental solicitor who had a geological background to help them make a strategy. McIntosh even demolished and photographed the demolition of tanning buildings, continued waste trucks to dump sites, and interviewed retired tire workers. The years of effort put forward document stacks that McIntosh preferred – a simple clamshell mobile phone to modern smart screens and paper files to the digital cloud – with heavy bag meetings.

Now, there are far-reaching effects associated with sleuthing in Michigan and beyond. The citizens of Ireland revealed evidence that chemicals known as per-and polyfluoroalkyl (PFASs), which contain researchers linked to a range of human health problems, caused significant pollution of land and water. There are over 4000 such compounds, which are widely used in products such as fire-fighting foams, nonstick coatings, carpeting, food packaging, and even dental floss. The tannery used two PFAS with the tone that waterproof shoe leather. In a statement Science, Wolverine said, when he applied for state redevelopment funds in 2010, he did not know that any of the chemicals were exhausting. "No further environmental testing or data was carried out for the former talent, and there was no basis for contamination of the property."

Wolverine Worldwide, shown here in 1960, was the main economic driver in the town of Rockford, Michigan. It closed in 2009.


As a result of CCRR's work, some of the highest levels of PFAS pollution in US drinking water were detected, and the effort to encourage a worldwide survey of PFAS contamination in Michigan has helped. This work has resulted in hundreds of laws against Wolverine and other entities linked to the chemicals. And he made a high profile battlefield, which he watched in Michigan in a rapidly growing scientific, political and legal dispute over the threat of PFASs to millions of people in the United States.

The events in Michigan show “when you look hard… you start to find [PFASs] who displays everywhere, "says Erik Olson from the Council for Natural Resource Protection in Washington, DC Around the country, there is evidence of contamination of the PFAS asking locals to keep an eye on their health. And there are companies, fire departments, water utilities, and US military who are facing cleaning costs and liabilities that could pay tens of millions of dollars or more.

McIntosh and her colleagues – including a toxicologist who works in a nearby university – now receive public attention in ways that they did not imagine nearly a decade ago. "I had no idea," says McIntosh, "this would be so great."

Bond not broken

The carbon-fluorine band is at the heart of the PFAS controversy, among the strongest chemical bands. Enzymes cannot break it. It cannot be broken by sunlight. Water cannot break it. This durability explains the commercial appeal of the PFAS, but they are difficult pollutants. They got "chemicals forever" because they are not naturally degraded. And because the molecules have a water-soluble head, water and air transport droplets can carry them for long periods of time.

However, the pharmacists who discovered how to synthesise PFAS in the 1930s were hit by their advantages. The use of chemicals in the United States began to grow rapidly during the 1950s, when Minnesota's Mining and Manufacturing Company, now St Paul's 3M firm, began selling two compounds: perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesfonfonal acid (PFOS). ). PFOA was the basis for Teflon, the ubiquitous nonstick cooker coating made by DuPont. PFOS was a major ingredient in fire-fighting foams used at military airports and bases and in the common defender Scotchgard, which enabled fabrics and other materials to resist water and oils.

At Wolverine, Scotchgard played a significant role in the success of one of the company's iconic shoe lines: Hush Puppies. Thanks to PFASs, these casual pigskin shoes, introduced in the 1950s, were waterproof. They are a best seller, helping to transform Wolverine into a multi-dollar-dollar company with a portfolio of shoe brands today including Merrell, Saucony, Stride Rite, and Keds.

Rockford, Michigan, Wolverine Worldwide helped with tannery with common shoes that were waterproof leather containing nonstick chemicals they had problems with.


However, as PFOA and PFOS sales grew, 3M and DuPont researchers were proving evidence that the chemicals were accumulated in humans and other animals and could have toxic effects. Much of this evidence did not arise in public as a result of dealing. In 1980, DuPont bought farmland in West Virginia and began dumping waste which was then affixed to PFOA. Cattle grazing nearby began to die, and in 1999 a local family sued the company. The event forced DuPont to bring internal files to hand, a family attorney, Rob Bilott from Taft Stettinius & Hollister in Cincinnati, Ohio, to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In 2001, DuPont paid an unquoted sum to settle the case, and the EPA imposed a fine on the company in 2005 for violation of toxic waste rules. Under pressure from the EPA, US manufacturers in 2006 agreed to produce PFOA production on a phased basis by 2015. (They ceased production of PFOS in 2002.) Often, related PFASs from safer manufacturers were added and they came faster down.

Bilott also helped to conduct a major study on the potential effects of PFAS on health. In 2001, he invoked DuPont again on behalf of 80,000 people in Ohio and West Virginia who served water sources that had been polluted by PFOA. In a settlement, DuPont agreed to pay up to $ 70 million for the study, known as the C8 Health Project as CFOA was called C8 once after a chain of molecule carbon atoms. Starting in 2005, a team led by a local doctor recruited more than 69,000 participants, who answered interview questions, completed questionnaires, and gave blood samples. In 2011 and 2012, three independent epidemiologists who analyzed the reports reported a likely link between PFAS exposure and six conditions: high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, testicular cancer, kidney cancer, and high blood pressure. stimulates pregnancy.

The C8 study was a gold mine, says Richard DeGrandchamp, a toxicologist at the University of Colorado Medical Campus Anschutz in Aurora, who was not involved in the work. "I don't know any major studies in epidemiological and toxicological history where there was a large group of people … people exposed to them."

In the meantime, other researchers found that almost all US residents had observable levels of PFAS (although PFOA and PFOS levels have decreased since their phasing out). And more researchers looked at PFAS contamination on industrial sites, airports, and military bases, the more they found. But when the citizens concerned began to explore the tannery here in 2010, they never heard about chemicals forever.

Exposure tests

Rick Rediske was unhappy. The environmental chemist was listening seriously as two members of CCRR-McIntosh and Janice Tompkins, formerly the Department of Environmental Quality of India – describing their investigations into the tannery, but a 30 minute drive from his office. at the Grand Valley University Allendale campus. "I was impressed by the level of detail I gathered," he said about the 2012 meeting.

Both women offered photographs of leather hides and grains embedded in the bank of the Rogue River, where their chemical content could enter the soil and water. They also had pictures of storm water that could have been contaminated from the tanning site during demolition and into the river. They shared CCRR interviews with former tanning workers about the use of the facility from chemicals and waste disposal practices. McIntosh showed a map of the problem areas she could have drawn based on the interviews, including spots where chemicals could leak from tanning through cracked floors and broken pipes. (During his first interview, and a former tanning employee in his 80s, McIntosh learned that Scotchgard was used to treat the leather.)

When the two women inquired that he could help test contaminants from the tannery, however, the 66-year-old professor had disregarded his age. He did not have funding to carry out such an expensive study. More importantly, he was not keen to engage with the law firm who represented Wolverine. In the 1990s, after documenting pollution at tannery in Michigan which was owned by a different company, the same law firm used public records to obtain its emails, technical memoranda, and laboratory notebooks – and employed them. he counselors to challenge his findings. His work challenged the examination and helped state officials win a $ 3 million clean-up arrangement. But the experience was tax cutting. "Scientists spend their careers taking their reputation," he says. "Providing conflicting views against powerful business and government interests has monetary and professional costs." However, he offered to advise CCRR.

Exposure concerns

As more testing showed sites with detectable substances of per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) in drinking water, groundwater, and the environment, many states have moved to recommend or adopt binding limits to PFAS contamination, or to establish non-binding standards designed to encourage further investigation.

States with proposed or existing PFAS limitsPollution sites


After that meeting, Tompkins learned by asking for public records to have the Scotchgard and other chemicals stored in tanks without secondary containment. And after hearing that state officials had planned to make an example for PFAS at other Michigan sites, CCRR asked if they could check the Rogue River. The officers agreed and in 2015 reported that elevated levels of PFOS were found in small catchments and white molluscs living downstream from tanning.

"The fish study was extremely important to us" because he suggested that the tannery contaminated off-site areas, says A. J. Birkbeck, an environmental attorney based in Michigan and a hydrogeologist who represents CCRR. The study also provided the data necessary to develop a case for action. "I decided I'd really take part when I got those results," he says. (Wolverine states that he is now collecting environmental data at the tanning site and is working on a filtration system to treat groundwater at the site before reaching the Rogue River.)

The group suspected that the river was not the only off-site area in which tanning waste was in contact. McIntosh, for example, had interviewed a former waste senator named Earl Tefft, who told her that he spent every year for a year keeping a large sludge container from the tanner to nearby dump sites. One was on a property owned by Wolverine about 8 kilometers from Rockford on House Street, a wooded lane with houses that drew their drinking water from private wells. In early 2017, CCRR informed state officials of the historical dumping, fearing that the waste could be contaminating nearby wells.

Wolverine tested the wells later that year, and the results were explosive. One water sample had a single PFOA and PFOS concentration of 27,600 parts per trillion (ppt), almost 400 times the level of concern proposed by the EPA at the time. The highest concentration state toxicologists were ever seen in a well, reported by journalist Garret Ellison from the Press Grand Rapids MLive team, which has covered PFAS corruption in Michigan.

House Street has received national attention. He seemed to explain why federal officials had received PFAS corruption in a nearby military facility, also on House Street, which had no history of using the chemicals. “If CCRR provided all the supporting tissue in essence… it would have been a lot of time before [regulators] put the pieces together "and he recognized the probable source of much pollution, says Ellison.

Wolverine declined to comment when asked if he believes that the PFAS pollution arises in the Street Street wells from nearby dumping. However, the company outlined the actions it has taken to ensure safe drinking water for residents. He says that he has given water filters to more than 700 homeowners, sampled over 1500 residential wells, and is monitoring water contamination levels at more than 500 houses.

If CCRR did not provide all the supporting tissue in essence… it would have been a long time before [regulators] put the pieces together.

Garret Ellison, Press Grand Rapids

In November 2017, Michigan officials responded to the results from House Street and elsewhere by launching the most comprehensive survey of PFAS contamination worldwide. It analyzed samples from all public water systems, as well as groundwater, surface waters, soils, sediments, foam, fish, and other wildlife. The survey showed that almost 1.4 million residents were drinking water from contaminated sources with PFAS. In Paris, a city in southwest Michigan, PFAS concentrated in such high drinking water – 1600 ppt – that the governor declared an emergency situation.

As public and official concerns increased, Rediske emerged as a leading expert for journalists and community groups who would like to learn more about the PFASs. He was happy to appear on television, says Birkbeck, "and he had the expertise to say, 'We have a real issue here.' Senator Gary Peters (D-MI) invited Rediske to give evidence in a public park even a summit held by the Peters committee in Michigan. Rediske, Peters, says, "it was important [in] assess what needs to be done to support local and state efforts "to address PFASs."

Michigan was not the only state that was tackling the issue. And in Washington, the D.C. administration, Congress and the newly elected President of Donald Trump were struggling to answer an increasingly urgent question: What is the safe level of PFAS, especially among people who drink water every day?

Pressure to set limits

So far, no one is convinced. In 2016, after reviewing studies of the potential impacts of PFAS on health, EPA reduced its non-binding advisory standard for drinking water from 400 ppt for PFOA and 200 ppt for PFOS to 70 ppt for both together. But some researchers and public health advocates argue that the level is too lax. Their views were greatly enhanced in June 2018, when the Disease Control and Prevention Centers (CDC) released a long-standing assessment of 14 PFAS. It recommended “minimum risk” levels for PFOA and PFOS, and the agency subsequently converted to drinking water limit proposals. For children, these levels are 21 ppt for PFOA and 14 ppt for PFOS – particularly below the EPA advisory level. (Trump's administrative officers discussed trying to block the release of the CDC report, fearing that it would create political unrest.)

The CDC's assessment was based, in part, on potential studies where researchers monitored people who had known PFAS blood levels to ascertain whether exposure was statistically exposed to health issues. In one such study, published in PLOS Medicine in February 2018, higher levels of PFAS were associated with greater weight among participants in a 2 year weight loss test. In the second prospective study, published in. T Environmental Health Perspectives in March 2018, researchers found that women with higher blood levels of PFOS and PFOA had a greater risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

Researchers do not fully understand the biological mechanisms that could explain such results, and this uncertainty helped to debate the safe limits of PFAS. At federal level, for example, the EPA has so far refused to accept the recommendations of the CDC. But at least one researcher, environmental health specialist Philippe Grandjean from Harvard State University. Chan School of Public Health in Boston says, even the CDC's recommendations are too high. It believes that protecting children 's immune systems would require a drinking water limit of 1 ppt or less.

The fisherman tries to place his fortune on the Rogue River near an old tanning site in Rockford, Michigan. The fish and foam of the river make chemicals used by tanning.


Political and economic circumstances are also coloring the debate. In general, the EPA is not intended to estimate costs when setting pollution limits. However, when the agency recommended its 70-ppt advisory level, its own surveys suggested that there would be very little global impact as it was known that some drinking water supplies had concentrations greater than that level. Newer surveys suggest that some water supplies have some PFAS contamination, however, which could put pressure on expensive cleaning if limits are reduced.

Industry groups question the need for more stringent regulation. In Michigan, for example, Wolverine hired a toxicologist who described the risks associated with PFAS. "The effects on human health from exposure are not known…," Janet Anderson from Integral Consulting in San Antonio, Texas, wrote a Wolverine blog post in November 2017. "No human studies have been done … that proves that no one any PFAS… no illness. ”

However, after the CDC report became public, the Trump administration – under increasing pressure from Congress and state officials – promised to take action. And in February, the EPA issued a plan requiring formal setting of regulatory limits for PFOA and PFOS and the launch of a national program to monitor PFASs in water systems. The agency stated that it would mitigate research on detection and cleanup methods, consider companies reporting their PFAS reports, and even consider banning certain compounds.

The EPA also plans to examine around 125 of the newer, less study-intensive PFAS in conjunction with the National Toxicology Program. One goal is to test the assumption that the newer compounds are safer because they have a shorter life. "We all have to remember that doesn't mean something it's not a problem if you're exposed to it, say, in your drinking water every day," said Linda Birnbaum, director of the Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in Durham, North Carolina, at a recent press briefing.

In the absence of a fast federal action, many states are accepting a charge. New York plans to set a maximum of 10 ppt for PFOA and PFOS in drinking water, but New Jersey is considering slightly higher limits. Vermont makers ran a bill that would set a 20-ppt limit for a combination of five PFAS. Pennsylvania launched a contamination survey across the state, having identified more than 300 public water supplies with "increased contamination potential." And in Michigan, Governor Gretchen Whitmer (D) confirmed in March that she could "no longer wait for the administration of Trump" and recommend state drinking water standards for some PFASs.

It may be expensive to meet such new standards. In New York, officials have estimated that compliance, including water fitting utility systems, will cost from $ 900 million to $ 1.5 billion. To help pay costs, some states are suing corruption PFAS. Last year, Minnesota settled a case against 3M for $ 850 million, which will be used to provide clean water for affected residents.

Official validation

Here in Michigan, lawsuits are also held. There are more than 200 families living on and near House Street, for example, suing Wolverine and 3M. Numerous legal issues include whether the plaintiffs can show that they damaged water contamination PFAS. If the family hits, it could "open the floods to more lawsuits and sue private citizen and sue state," says attorney Paul Albarran from Varnum, the law firm based on Grand Rapids who represents the family.

In March, the state and federal regulators formally validated the registration by McIntosh and CCRR: They officially confirmed that PFASs on the former tanning site and the waste disposal areas are nearby. The announcement was made at a town hall meeting at Rockford Conservatory. McIntosh and Birkbeck sat in the front row. Rediske, Tompkins, and other CCRR members were also in the crowd. As McIntosh listened to how the corruption maps presented by the officials were adapted to the informal maps she drew based on interviews with former tanning workers.

During the meeting, Rediske urged residents to join a new community advisory group that will help oversee the next chapter in the history of tanning: a complicated, long cleaning. Due to the role already played by concerned citizens in resolving pollution problems in Michigan and beyond, Rediske said that he was confident that they would meet the new challenge: "It can be done."

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