PFAS in the Huron River: Every Mile, Every Fish, Every Day

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As usual, our 15-year-old son Quincy had fishing on his mind.

It was the steamy Friday afternoon start of Labor Day weekend in Ann Arbor. We had just moved Quincy’s brother Alex into a University of Michigan dorm room, and taken my wife to Detroit Metropolitan Airport to visit her parents in Florida. Now it was time for our own adventure.

We drove to Gallup Park, an east-side city oasis stretching along the Huron River that hosts a popular canoe livery and attracts locals as well as international students and families who often picnic and play there. Pulling our fishing gear from the Subaru, we stepped toward the wide tan waters of the slow-moving stretch of river.

My family & friends relaxing on the Huron River near the Argo Canoe Livery in Ann Arbor before heading downstream through the Cascades, U of M Nichols Arboretum, ending up at Gallup Park.

Quincy and I smiled as we joined the bicyclists, joggers, and other park-goers, and laughed at the chances of catching any fish in the full sun of late afternoon. We cast our lines and twitched our rubber worms as we chatted with two members of a family from Jordan also hoping to hook into something.

Finding no bites, just weeds, we moved to another shore, and Quincy hatched a plan: “If I can get through this brush and step into the water, I could cast along the shore where there’s a little shade.” Boom! The plan worked, and I heard thrashing in the water as Quincy hauling in a hefty, 17-inch largemouth bass. Quincy landed another nice bass before we left, and we returned the next morning to kayak the Huron with my sister who lives in Ann Arbor and my U of M college buddy and his son.

Water Everywhere and Not a Fish to Eat

Quincy Thayer with his catch-and-release largemouth bass at Gallup Park in Ann Arbor.

Friday night I posted a Facebook photo of a smiling Quincy displaying his prized bass, and my friend Bill quickly shared this link with me: Michigan says PFAS makes all fish in Huron River unsafe to eat. I thanked him, and replied in frustration, “A river too toxic to eat a single damn fish.”

I had seen a prior state warning not to eat any Huron River fish in parts of three counties because of chemical pollution, specifically by PFOS, which is a type of PFAS, a term that represents a group of water-repellent chemicals known as per- and poly-fluorinated compounds.

Now the toxic PFAS advisory had been extended to all 130 miles of the Huron River in southeast Michigan, which emerges from a swamp in northern Oakland County and flows into Lake Erie on the boundary between Wayne and Monroe counties. The river and its toxins wind through thirteen parks, game areas, and recreation areas, and the cities of Dexter, Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, Belleville, Flat Rock, and Rockwood. It is the only state-designated Country-Scenic Natural River in southeast Michigan, according to Wikipedia, which includes 27.5 miles of the mainstream, plus an additional 10.5 miles of three tributaries.

It’s deeply troubling because PFAS have links to cancer, liver damage, birth defects and autoimmune diseases. The state says that touching the fish or water, and swimming in these water bodies, is not considered a health concern as PFAS do not move easily through the skin.

PFAS have been used in cosmetics, products including Scotchgard and Teflon, fire-retardant sprays, and some food packaging such as pizza boxes and microwave-popcorn bags. They are called “forever chemicals” because they don’t biodegrade.

Finding One PFAS Source, With Thousands More to Go

A few days later, I eagerly clicked on this headline: Metro Detroit auto supplier is a source of PFAS pollution in Huron River. But I didn’t feel the relief or sense of justice I sought in reading about one suspected polluter among many in the PFAS crisis washing over all of Michigan. Stretches of the Kalamazoo River and Flint River are contaminated with PFAS too. Michigan officials estimate that PFAS might contaminate more than 11,000 sites statewide.

Michiganders are drinking PFAS too. Veterans and their families and co-workers for years likely drank PFAS at Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Oscoda. The state of Michigan has found the chemical concoction in the drinking water of 1.5 million Michiganders so far, with statewide testing only about halfway complete in late August. The list of public water supply systems with known PFAS levels currently include major systems that draw water from the Great Lakes such as Saginaw, Grand Rapids and Wyoming, as well as groundwater systems such as Kalamazoo, and surface water systems as in Ann Arbor, which draws primarily from the Huron River.

The state of Michigan and the federal government both lack a legally enforceable drinking water standard for PFAS, with state decision-making based on a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency advisory of 70 parts per trillion (ppt) that is not protective of public health, particularly for children and pregnant women, and is 70 times higher than the limit of 1 ppt recommended in a study by the Harvard School of Public Health.

Starting with the Truth

On a personal level, it makes me sick that every fish in this wide river winding through my childhood hometown of Ann Arbor is too toxic to consume. I also wonder how the fish themselves are faring, along with everything else in the river and all birds and other wildlife that also eat the fish. Are they getting any warnings?

How do I really explain the handing off of this legacy to Quincy? I decide to start with the truth and text Quincy the article that Bill shared with me. We talk about it and commiserate a little. We like to eat fish, but mostly don’t for health concerns related to mercury, PCBs, and dioxin, and now PFAS.

I think about all those local and international families who do eat the fish they catch at Gallup Park. I call the park and reach a staffer who assures me that the city has erected signs and posters warning people along the Huron River not to eat the fish. He said the city also sent out a text alert about the PFAS pollution too.  I feel somewhat assured, but also know that plenty of people along the river’s 130-mile run might not hear or heed the health warnings. 

Kelly Thayer, FLOW Contributor

I recall reports that state officials ignored and suppressed a major warning in 2012 about Michigan’s emerging PFAS crisis. I reflect on the recent reporting by FLOW’s executive director Liz Kirkwood that “every year, chemical manufacturers release some 10,000 untested chemicals into the environment in the United States.” And I remind myself that fighting for what’s right and for the future is always the right thing to do, especially when the fight grows larger and seems overwhelming.

The heat is rising on the Michigan legislature to enact an enforceable PFAS drinking water standard and conduct a full investigation into the state’s PFAS crisis, and how an MDEQ report exposing it six years ago was ignored. Michiganders deserve the truth, the protection of their health, and an outdoors and drinking water supply that are not toxic.


Additional sources of information on PFAS contamination in Michigan:


 

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