In Michigan, water main breaks aren’t unusual, although they’re more common in winter. It didn’t immediately strike Cooper as out of the ordinary to not be able to drink the water.
It advised using bottled water for cooking, drinking and making baby formula.
“I immediately felt really sick,” Cooper said.
PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a family of more than 4,000 synthetic chemicals that degrade very slowly, if at all, in the environment. Some of the best-known chemicals are PFOS, PFOA and GenX.
It’s not the first time Michigan has dealt with toxic tap water; the legacy of Flint is not far behind. But unlike in the Flint lead crisis, it’s unknown how long the water in Parchment has been contaminated with PFAS.
Now, all Cooper could see were toxins all over her house, poisoning her nearly 3-year-old daughter, Jillian, who has lived in Parchment most of her life.
“You look around and you have sippy cups around,” she said. Every cup of water — in fact, anything using the water — became suspect.
A persistent problem
The chemicals have been used for decades on military bases and in industrial areas in the manufacturing of thousands of consumer items including food packaging materials, water-resistant fabrics, nonstick cooking pans and firefighting foams.
But they can still be found all around us, including in the water.
“Exposure in utero may have the greatest effect on developing children … and effects may last into adulthood,” Pinney said, adding that the research is early and so is not definitive.
And that is what exactly worries Cooper. She can’t help but wonder whether the more than two years her family has lived in Parchment have been the root of their health issues.
“You just start thinking, ‘well, we were sick a lot,’ ” she said.
Is it the water? Could it be breast milk?
Cooper and her husband David prioritize healthy living: They buy organic food; they wash their hands often; they diligently use laundry detergent “free and clear” of unnecessary chemicals; she breastfed her daughter for nearly 3 years. So could there be a connection to the water? After all, her thyroid hormone levels went down after her pregnancy. “It causes all these questions,” she said.
Her biggest concern is Jillian. She was small, measuring in the 10th percentile for weight when they moved to Parchment when she was 6 months old. A year later, she had dropped below the 1st percentile in weight. After Cooper focused on feeding her a higher-fat and -protein diet, Jillian’s weight is now in the 4th percentile.
“Is it the water?” Cooper wonders. Could it have been her breast milk? “She’s nursed the entire duration that we’ve lived here. Everything that I’ve read, if you’re nursing a child, you’re passing it on to them.”
Cooper reached out to Jillian’s pediatrician immediately after she read the Facebook announcement. Her doctor is concerned there could be a connection between the water and Jillian’s growth, but there is little to nothing they can do about it now.
Since the city’s announcement, Cooper decided to wean her daughter off breastfeeding. “I didn’t want it to end this way. The last thing I want to remember is this special thing to be terminated because of this thing in the water,” she said.
“Maybe I don’t have any health issues from the water, but there’s a major cost to your mental health, because you’re in charge of this little person, and you feel like you’re failing.”
It’s an anxiety that has occupied many other parents in the area, like Sara Dean.
Dean and her husband settled in Parchment three years ago after searching for a place to raise their children. They worried that their hometown of Chicago was too busy and potentially too violent of a place to raise a family.
Parchment was beautiful. Neighbors spoke to on another. It seemed like a great place to start a family.
A national problem
In May, the agency held a national leadership summit on PFAS but blocked several media outlets, including CNN, from attending.
At the event this week in Fayetteville, the agency addressed residents who have found elevated levels of the chemical GenX, a second-generation PFAS, in private drinking water wells.
Bruton, of the Green Science Policy Institute, expects the number of affected communities to continue to grow.
“The more we monitor water supplies, the more widespread we find these chemicals to be,” he said.
Trying to find peace of mind
Dean can’t help but wonder what the impact of Parchment’s water has been on her 2-year-old boy and the child with which she is 30 weeks pregnant. Like Jillian, Dean’s son, Patrick, is on the smaller side, and her baby is measuring smaller in the womb.
“Do I make small babies,” Dean questions, “or do I make small babies because I drink poisoned water?”
Within hours of hearing the news of the elevated levels, the city of Parchment quickly set up a bottled water distribution system. City officials are currently working to connect residents to the nearby Kalamazoo water system.
Parchment’s water advisory says it’s safe to use the water for cleaning and washing purposes. Bathing is also fine because absorption of PFAS through the skin is slow and insignificant.
But when Dean takes a dish out of the dishwasher, she will run bottled water over it “for peace of mind.”
It’s something Don Rome is also considering. It’s well worth the cost to protect his wife, their 13-year-old daughter and 17-year-old son, and their pets, he said.
“I’m not sure I’ll be going back to drinking directly from the tap without filters. So there is some uncertainty there. It’s all a new frontier,” Rome said.
And when Rome swims in their pool or takes a shower, there’s always some thought about it in the back of his mind. “You don’t intend to drink the water, but it gets in your mouth. … Things happen.”
Rome has a lot of confidence in the city. He feels that officials have done a good job of communicating actions taken to keep residents safe, including the efforts to connect to the Kalamazoo system.
But there is no question in Rome’s mind that the water has impacted all parts of the city.
Rome tracks real estate in Parchment in his job. He noticed the pace of home sales has slowed since the PFAS announcement.
“There has been a slowdown in interest and foot traffic,” he said.
For Cooper, the impact of the PFAS contamination has been significant. Her house is being used as one of the city’s testing sites. It has created a sense of distrust that wasn’t there before.
“You backtrack on everything that you ever believed in, everything about your safety,” she said.
“If you can’t trust the government about water, what can you trust them about?”
News credit : Cnn