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Health officials warn of PFAS-containing foam in Michigan waters

bright white foam on shore
Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy
/
Flickr
PFAS foam in Van Ettan Lake in Oscoda, Michigan near the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base.

Foam in Michigan waterways is often a naturally occurring phenomenon. But some foam may contain high levels of PFAS, “forever chemicals” that may have adverse health effects.

Scott Izzo is an epidemiologist and the community health director for District Health Department No. 2, which covers Alcona, Iosco, Ogemaw and Oscoda. Although the immediate health risk is low, Izzo said it’s better to exercise caution and keep your distance.

“As people are out enjoying the water over the summer, just be aware of what dangers are out there,” Izzo said. “As much as it is important to use sunscreen and reduce the amount of direct sun you get, that’s the same way I view PFAS.”

Natural foam is off-white or brown in color and tends to have an earthy or fishy smell. PFAS-containing foam tends to be bright white, lightweight and may pile up along shorelines.

Izzo said the science on PFAS is still developing, and there’s more to learn on the long-term health impacts and exposure limits.

A recent evaluation by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services suggests young children who come into contact with PFAS-containing foam for a few hours a day may be more at risk of negative health effects.

“The best thing is to avoid it as much as possible,” Izzo said. “If you notice a kid or a pet is coming into contact with it, try to find a way to change routines or patterns, so they don’t come into contact with it as much.”

Izzo said the risk of PFAS getting into your body from skin contact is low, but you can accidentally swallow PFAS or other chemicals if you do not rinse off after coming into contact with foam.

“It may not necessarily be something that should keep you from going out and having fun, but you should be aware of the risks,” Izzo said.

If you suspect PFAS in the water, you can report it to the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team or call the MDHHS environmental hotline at 1-800-648-6942.

Teresa Homsi is an environmental reporter and Report for America Corp Member based in northern Michigan for WCMU. She is covering rural environmental issues, public health and Michigan commerce. Homsi has a bachelor’s from Central Michigan University in environmental studies, journalism and anthropology. During her undergraduate, she was a beat reporter for CMU’s student newspaper Central Michigan Life and interned for the Huron Daily Tribune. She has also interned for the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy in the superfund section. *Report for America is a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms, more info at https://www.reportforamerica.org/