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Oscoda residents confirm PFAS in Lake Huron foam, with community-led study

PFAS-resembling foam washes up on the Lake Huron coastline in Au Sable Township in 2018.
Courtesy Photo
Cathy Wusterbarth
PFAS-resembling foam washes up on the Lake Huron coastline in Au Sable Township in 2018.

Oscoda residents have long-noted bright white foam on their Lake Huron beach and worried about it containing toxic "forever chemicals." A new community-led study confirms their suspicions.

In a report published by the Ecology Center, four samples of foam from Oscoda's Lake Huron coastline tested positive for PFAS chemicals — with one sample pinging 7,900 ppt for total PFAS.

Chris Coulon, an Oscoda resident and volunteer who worked on the project, said the state has declined to test foam in Lake Huron, so residents took it into their own hands.

Only a few waterbodies in Michigan have PFAS foam advisories, including inland Van Etten Lake in Osocda and Lake Margrethe in Grayling.

Coulon said she believes PFAS migrated off the contaminated former Wurtsmith Air Force Base, that sits just a couple miles west of Lake Huron.

"When they refuse to do something and we want to have something, that means we have to step in and do it ourselves," said Chris Coulon, an Oscoda resident and volunteer. "Of course, you have to find the funding for that and you have to have local support for that."

There are no state standards for what is considered to be safe levels of PFAS in foam, and most state testing focuses on surface waters.

In public statements, the state continues to warn beachgoers to avoid foam as a precaution but says the health risks of PFAS exposure through physical contact are low.

Coulon said the findings support the need for signage on the Lake Huron shoreline, similar to what's posted on Van Etten Lake.

"The community (may not be) necessarily thrilled about putting signs up that there is a toxic foam on their public beach that's a big tourist area," Coulon said. "(But) it is to protect people's health."

Even if the health impacts are low, Cathy Wusterbarth said the public needs to be aware of the risks when recreating on the shoreline.

"Our biggest concern is that people are unknowingly touching the foam, their pets are walking through it and their children are touching it, thinking that it's fun," said Wusterbarth, the co-founder of Need Our Water.

Wusterbarth said she hopes the report's findings are taken seriously by state officials, and volunteers were meticulous in ensuring test results held up to quality standards.

"We tried to document everything as well as we could with pictures and all of the data, the temperature and the wind speed," Wusterbarth said. "The (state has) a guideline for how to do foam testing, how to collect foam samples, and we used that."

In a statement to WCMU, a spokesperson from the Michigan Department of Enviroment, Great Lakes and Energy said the state is still reviewing the report.

"No determination has been made on the signage request nor the locations of future testing as requested in their report," wrote Hugh McDiarmid Jr., an EGLE communications manager.

For the full report and its results, visit the Ecology Center website.

Teresa Homsi is an environmental reporter and Report for America Corps Member based in northern Michigan for WCMU. She covers rural environmental issues, focused on contamination, conservation, and climate change.
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