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Health threats from former Air Force base pollution spreading, researchers say

Michigan Department of Environmental Quality

Michigan health and environment researchers said Tuesday that the threats from pollution left behind at a former U.S. Air Force base are spreading.

One of Michigan’s most frequently caught fish could have higher levels of the chemicals than previously thought, said Puneet Vij, a toxicologist with the state Department of Health and Human Services.

Vij said the state has been recommending a maximum of four servings per month of yellow perch. It’s now cutting that recommendation in half to two servings a month after finding PFOS and mercury in the fish, he said.

PFOS -- one of the compounds in the PFAS family -- is an industrial chemical commonly used in firefighting foams that has been found in the groundwater surrounding the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Oscoda.

The health threats from PFOS come from consumption of contaminated products, not from touching them, Vij said, so catch-and-release fishing is not risky.

The state is testing some drinking water sources near the base and, in some cases, recommending that residents use certain types of water filters.

It’s part of an effort to understand how far the underground chemical plume of pollutants extends, where it’s growing, and how much of a threat it poses to nearby communities, said state health department toxicologist Bill Farrell.

But the data are still new, Farrell said. Some spots have only been measured once, so, erring on the side of caution, the health department might recommend filters in places where they turn out not to be necessary.

“We don’t know if the levels could fluctuate over time,” Farrell said. “We need to do more investigation. We need to understand what the long-term exposures could be.”

Oscoda Township Trustee Bill Palmer said the local government is now paying to extend municipal water service to people who live near the former Wurtsmith Air Force base.

But he said he’s worried the chemical plume will spread to the municipal water source, too.

“The residents will not have to pay for the hookups to the municipal water, but in conjunction with that, we – you know, we’re concerned that the municipal water is going to stay suitable for drinking,” Palmer said.

The state Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy said it will test municipal water to ensure any contamination stays at safe levels.

The Air Force has said it is developing a treatment plan that will address the contamination coming from its former base, though the military branch also said it's likely years away from adhering to state standards for the cleanup, and a group of local residents said the plan is inadequate.

Brett joined WCMU in February, 2021, as a general assignment reporter. He was previously the health reporter at WXXI Public Broadcasting in Rochester, N.Y., and has filed stories for National Public Radio, IEEE Spectrum, The Village Voice and other outlets.
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