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PFAS

Midland Daily News: PFAS foam a “visible reminder” of contamination


Cathy Wusterbarth, a local PFAS activist, points out foam along Oscoda’s Lake Huron shoreline in 2024.





Courtney Boyd/WCMU



Foam washes ashore on Van Etten Lake, Oscoda, on June 27, 2024. Cathy Wusterbarth, a local PFAS activist, suspects that it contains PFAS chemicals.





Courtney Boyd/WCMU



In November 2023, foam washes up along the shoreline of Mullet Lake in Cheboygan. The Michigan Department of Environment Great Lakes and Energy was notified of this sighting, but officials can’t confirm that the foam is PFAS without testing.





Teresa Homsi / WCMU


It’s not uncommon for foam to form on the shores of lakes. This is usually due to dying aquatic plants and algae being stirred by the waves.

Some foam that is artificially white contains “forever chemicals” and can be toxic.

Cathy Wusterbarth says she doesn’t remember ever seeing foam when she lived in Oscoda.

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She said, “Even as a lifeguard at Van Etten Lake I don’t recall seeing any foam. When I asked other people, they also didn’t see it.”

Wusterbarth now notices this all the time. She pointed out tiny specks on Lake Huron that she suspects are PFAS chemicals.

“Can you see the bubbles?” Wusterbarth stated that the foam is PFAS. “It’s everywhere.”

Wusterbarth founded Need Our Water after learning about contamination at the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base. She wanted to raise awareness of PFAS and advocate for greater cleanup measures within her community.

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She can’t ignore the foam. It washes up in large, white, fluffy piles on the beaches of Oscoda.

Wusterbarth: “The more I researched PFAS, the more I realized it was probably not safe for me to swim in Van Etten Lake,” Wusterbarth said. “I just wanted to know more about protecting my community, my family and myself.”

Kevin Cox, a Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy toxicologist, said that the PFAS in the environment is one of the most visible.

Cox stated that it is still a mystery as to why PFAS foam first forms on waterbodies.

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Cox added, “Foam disappears quickly as well, so it’s difficult to go out and assess that foam.” “The concentrations of PFAS might not be the exact same the next time that you sample the same area.”

The PFAS concentrations in foams are usually much higher than those in surface waters like rivers or lakes.

There are state-regulated limits for PFAS in drinking waters and surfaces waters but no standards on the chemicals used in foam.

Cox stated that the likelihood of someone having prolonged contact with foam was much lower than what we see with regard to fish consumption and concerns about exposure to surface waters during recreational activities. “So, that lowers our priority (to do any kind of assessment) for foam.”

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Cox said identifying foams helps the state to identify sources of contamination.

He said that “when we reduce the levels of foam going into the air, we will see a reduction in its occurrence.”

The health risks associated with PFAS foam have been reported to be low by public health officials. The state defines prolonged contact as three hours a day, five days a week and three months of a year.

Marcus Wasilevich of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services said that touching foam was not a health concern, compared with consuming contaminated fish or water.

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Wasilevich advised, “Know the sources of your exposure.” The main concern at this time is swallowing and ingestion of PFAS.

To be safe, he says to wash off any foam that comes into contact with the skin.

Wasilevich explained that the foam could contain PFAS, but it might also contain other substances, such as bacteria or fungi. “In general, you should avoid foam, but do not let this deter you from enjoying our waters.”

Kevin Cox, a Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy toxicologist, said that the PFAS in the environment is one of the most visible.

Continue below this advertisement

Cox stated that it is still a mystery as to why PFAS foam first forms on waterbodies.

Cox added, “Foam disappears quickly as well, so it’s difficult to go out and assess that foam.” “The concentrations of PFAS might not be the exact same the next time that you sample the same area.”

The PFAS concentrations in foam are usually much higher than those in surface water such as a river, lake or ocean.

There are state-regulated limits for PFAS in drinking waters and surfaces waters but no standards on the chemicals used in foam.

Continue below this advertisement

Cox stated that the likelihood of someone having prolonged contact with foam was much lower than what we see with regard to fish consumption and concerns about exposure to surface waters during recreational activities. “So, that lowers our priority (to do any kind of assessment) for foam.”

Cox said identifying foams helps the state to identify PFAS sources.

He said that “when we reduce the levels of foam going into the air, we will see a reduction in its occurrence.”

The health risks associated with PFAS foam have been reported to be low by public health officials. The state defines prolonged contact as three hours a day, five days a week and three months of a year.

Continue below this advertisement

Marcus Wasilevich of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services said that touching foam was not a health concern, compared with consuming contaminated fish or water.

Wasilevich advised, “Know the sources of your exposure.” The main concern at this time is swallowing and ingestion of PFAS.

To be safe, he says to wash off any foam that comes into contact with the skin.

Wasilevich explained that the foam could contain PFAS, but it might also contain other substances, such as bacteria or fungi. “So, in general, you should avoid foam when you see it. But don’t be scared off from recreation in our waters because of it.”

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Cathy Wusterbarth believes that the foam is only the “tip” of the iceberg when it comes contamination in her locality.

Wusterbarth stated, “It makes me sick.” “I compare (PFAS contamination to a tumor) on our planet. It’s like a cancer that’s spreading.

Wusterbarth, assisted by the Ecology Center, a nonprofit environmental organization, sampled foam along the shoreline of Lake Huron in the town. The recently released report confirmed the high levels of PFAS chemicals.

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There is no follow-up for foam without standards. Wusterbarth, however, said that education was essential to reducing public exposure to toxic chemicals.

She would like to see foam warnings on beaches and more testing done in the Great Lakes.

Wusterbarth expressed concern that many people do not know the dangers of PFAS foam, whether it is in contact with animals or children. “For highly contaminated and concentrated PFAS foams, that is dangerous.”

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This story was created by the Michigan News Group Internship Program. It is a collaboration of WCMU Public Media with local newspapers from central and northern Michigan. The mission of the program is to train and combat rural news deserts.

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