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State launches invite-only PFAS health assessment in Kent County

Dr. Eden Wells, the chief medical executive at Michigan's Department of Health and Human Services, explains a new PFAS Health Assessment in Kent County. (WWMT/Mikenzie Frost)
Dr. Eden Wells, the chief medical executive at Michigan's Department of Health and Human Services, explains a new PFAS Health Assessment in Kent County. (WWMT/Mikenzie Frost)
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The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services has launched what it's calling a first-of-its-kind health assessment to quantify the relationship between per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) exposure and elevated levels of the chemicals in a person’s blood stream.

The state health department partnered with the Kent County Health Department to test households with confirmed levels of PFAS in drinking water. Dr. Eden Wells, the chief medical executive for Michigan's health department, said households with confirmed PFAS levels of 70 parts per trillion will be invited to participate in the study, along with a sample of households that have detectable levels of PFAS, but below the 70 ppt threshold.

That threshold, implemented by the state of Michigan, is based on the health advisory standard issued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Wells said that 183 households in northern Kent County have higher levels of PFAS in drinking water supplies and 585 households have detectable levels. Roughly 800 people are expected to participate in the assessment.

This is not a health study, a point that was reiterated multiple times by the organizers. Following the assessment, Wells said, a health study could potentially occur, but that is not guaranteed. A health study would look at potential links between PFAS exposure and health issues.

“If the results are strong enough to show, we may be able to take these numbers and use them as part of a health study, in other words, we know there’s been a significant exposure. To see any association between any particular health outcomes with PFAS exposure,” Wells said. “Knowledge is power. This [PFAS] is an emerging contaminant, and we are trying to understand more.”

Wells estimated that the entire assessment will cost roughly $1 million. The money is coming from the state health department budget that the legislature allocated for PFAS in the state.

Those who participate will be subject to a blood draw, and a questionnaire about other potential avenues of PFAS exposure. Then a sanitarian will come to their home to test the water supply.

“We will be quicker [than the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention], but don’t expect it to be done in the next few months,” Wells said.

Meaning, the assessment will likely continue through spring 2019 and a full report, detailing the results, won’t be complete until late 2019 or early 2020. However, individuals who participate in the study can opt to have the results sent to their homes. Those results are expected two to four months after the testing.

The results will be compared to national averages of PFAS levels in the body. Participants will be tested for 24 different types of chemicals.

While PFAS have been found in more than 30 sites across the state, according to the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team, northern Kent County will be the only location where this assessment will take place.

“No other areas have had more wells test above the health advisory,” Wells said.

People living in the Oscoda area, on the east side of Michigan, have been dealing with PFAS contamination from the decommissioned Wurtsmith Air Force Base since at least 2010. Wells said Oscoda is an area where she would like to see an assessment as well, but "that’s a different situation." She said because the contamination comes from an Air Force Base, she would like to see the U.S. Department of Defense work with other federal agencies, such as the CDC, to move forward with an assessment.

“We’ve been working over the last couple of years frankly, and hope to get a very similar exposure assessment by our federal agencies,” Wells said. “If that does not manifest, we would like to go ahead and proceed as well.”

The Kent County assessment data will be shared with the CDC, said Brian Hertl, Kent County's epidemiology supervisor. Hertl also said that the CDC is doing similar assessments nationwide, and he hopes Michigan is chosen as another location.

“This will prove that high levels of exposure leads to elevated levels in the blood,” Hertl said.

Individuals who decide to participate in the assessment must have lived in the home at least since Jan. 1, 2018. Letters will be sent out in waves and the first clinic is expected to begin Dec. 8.

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