230 bright blue dots are plotted on an official gray map plainly labeled “Michigan PFAS Sites.” Innocuous in appearance, the majority of dots designate military bases, airports, and landfills, where PFAS—per- or polyfluorinated substances, often referred to as “forever chemicals,” which are found in fire retardants, lubricants, and coatings like Scotchgard™ and Teflon™—are used, or were dumped. The contaminants have become somewhat better known to Americans through the 2019 Hollywood film Dark Waters. These blue dots are markers of tragedy; sites of either profound ignorance or nihilistic callousness. One of them is less than two miles from Mary Burks’ home on the south side of Pellston, Michigan.
I spoke with Mary in September 2022. An elder of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians, Mary was diagnosed in December 2021 with stage 4 liver cancer, a disease associated with PFAS contamination. By January it had metastasized to her lungs and she was told she had three months to live. Her blue dot was the Pellston Regional Airport, where firefighting foams chock full of PFAS chemicals were routinely used. No one’s sure how long the airport used these chemicals, but it was long enough to contaminate Mary’s own well a couple of miles away, and the wells of both her sisters, Shirley and Alice. Shirley’s husband dug the well 84 feet down—extra deep “because he didn’t want to run into anything down there.” He died of leukemia in recent years, a disease which is also associated with PFAS contamination.
PFAS were first detected in Pellston in early 2020 at the tribe’s Head Start center, one block over from Mary’s house. High school students, including Shirley’s own granddaughter, conducted the testing with Fresh Water Futures, a nonprofit that catalyzes community efforts to safeguard the waters of the Great Lakes. “I don’t know why Katy’s class decided to check it,” Shirley said. “At first they didn’t find anything, but the class wanted to go a little bit farther and see what happens next, and that’s when they found the PFAS. You know, you just wonder how long this has been going on, probably a long time, because no one thought to check it.”
Mary had come back to Emmet County in 2004 to be with her extended family after putting in 30 years at Stroh’s Brewery in Detroit. “I’ve had a good life, I went to a lot of dances, a lot of powwows, I just had a wonderful life,” she said. “I worked all the time, but I had a good time with my sisters especially. I told my great grandson, who loves me, ‘Don’t feel bad for me. Think of me as finally being able to rest.’”
As we spoke about her life, there were plenty of hearty laughs, but also a few moments when her words would wither to ash on her tongue and her eyes would drain of all sparkle. When I asked her to describe the pain, she said only, “It’s chronic.” About receiving her diagnosis, she remarked, “I think I took it okay, considering, but it’s never good news to get. I remember thinking, ‘Well, I don’t want to go, but we all have to, so get your mind fixed for it,’ and that’s basically what I did.”
Mary’s eldest daughter, Andrea Pierce, thanked her mother for outliving her prognosis by at least six months. “My mother is ‘Odawa strong,’” she said. But a few moments later, Mary said, “I’m getting weaker and weaker. Some days I can’t get out from under the blanket [because] it’s so heavy.”
The scourge of fatal cancer has run rampant through Mary’s community. Mary, her brother-in-law, and their cousins, two brothers who lived on Shirley’s block, also had fatal cancers. Their neighbor across the street was only 54 when they died of cancer, and Roseanne, another neighbor down the block, died of lung cancer. Pelston’s population is only 755; similarly, tribal members living in Emmet County number only in the hundreds, and every loss is deeply felt.
“It’s like in the war-torn countries that have all the land mines,” said Mary’s younger daughter, Marisa Graves, who left her husband behind in the Northwest to be her mother’s everyday caretaker. “You can see the people of all ages with their limbs that have been blown off. And most of them don’t even have a prosthesis, or they have homemade crutches of sticks and things… that’s going to be our commonplace here.”
In 2020, the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) issued rules for the maximum limit of seven PFAS contaminants in our drinking water. In 2023, the EPA expanded those rules, setting the maximum limits at 4 parts per trillion. These rules apply to 2,700 public drinking water systems—but private drinking water wells and systems are not regulated. The drinking water in Mary’s house was filtered by under-the-sink filters provided by Emmet County, but their daily shower is taken in contaminated water. “I was a little freaked out when I first got here, I was thinking, yikes, it could be me next. This could be a thing that I go through, and I’m watching her, and I’m watching my future,” Graves said.
For four consecutive years, Jannan Cornstalk, a member of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians, has coordinated the Water Is Life Festival in Mackinaw City, held on Labor Day weekend. The annual event is timed to attract some of the 26,000 or so bridge-walkers who flood into the tourist town every year to traverse the five-mile suspension bridge that connects the state’s upper and lower peninsulas. The free outdoor festival has been devoted to educating the public about the imminent hazard to the Great Lakes posed by the continued operation of Enbridge Corporation’s 69-year-old twin pipelines under the Straits of Mackinac, and the existential threat to the 12 “fishing tribes,” including Cornstalk’s own.
But lately, Cornstalk, who is based in Petoskey, had been hearing about a spate of serious cancer diagnoses, illnesses, and deaths of tribal members living in nearby Pellston. She began wondering if this epidemic could be related to the discovery of PFAS contamination, traced back to the Pellston Regional Airport, in homeowners’ private wells.
Realizing the community had more questions than answers, Cornstalk, and the festival’s steering committee, changed their focus. The 2022 festival would be devoted to educating themselves and attendees about the threat to clean water in Michigan posed by PFAS. A panel of experts and impacted community members (which by virtue of necessity have become overlapping categories) presented information and insights at the 2022 festival.
“PFAS is a family of chemicals that have been in use since around 1940, initially developed for industrial processes like water repellents, stain resistance, heat resistance and lubrication, and also consumer products such as fireproofing, GORE-TEX products, shoes, fabrics, food containers, Teflon cookware and food wrappers,” Charlie Schlinger, a Traverse City-based engineer and scientist, said at the festival. “PFAS compounds… tend to last in your body and in the environment for a very long time, [and] the health impacts are not very well understood.”
“Industries that create [PFAS compounds] undermined the regulatory agency and regulatory processes that otherwise would have been in place to protect the public from these chemicals, so the EPA was hamstrung for decades, and did little to protect against PFAS,” Schlinger continued. “They are taking more action recently in the past few years but in the meantime it’s been over 70 years since these compounds were introduced, and there’s been widespread use around the globe.”
In July 2022, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine publicly urged doctors to pursue testing for their patients. But insurance won’t pay, the test is absurdly costly, and polluter pay laws—though introduced on several occasions by Sen. Jeff Irwin of Ann Arbor—have not yet advanced in the Michigan legislature. “I would like more testing,” said Pierce, who is both chair and founder of the Anishinaabe caucus of the Democratic Party. “I think [Mary] has PFAS poisoning because we’re so close to the contamination side, and it’s her liver. But the blood testing costs so much and I don’t know if we’d be able to afford it.”
By Irwin’s own admission, because of the strictures of what was possible and not possible as a member of the minority party, some of his past legislative initiatives have been “nibbling around the edges” of protections against chemical contamination. But now that the Democrats have regained control of the legislature for the first time in 40 years, that will most certainly change. Irwin credited Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer with creating a “maximum contamination limit” for PFAS chemicals to try and protect the health of Michigan residents, but thinks those rules could be tighter. “The two biggest things that were left on the cutting room floor were a more cumulative sense of exposure and a child receptor rule, rules that are really focused on protecting the most vulnerable people—little people, children,” he said.
Sandy Wynn-Stelt, of the Great Lakes PFAS Action Network, has had her life ravaged by PFAS contamination. A former therapist turned full-time advocate, she spoke at the Water is Life Festival in 2022. After living in the area for over 20 years, her husband was diagnosed with liver cancer in 2016, and died three weeks later. “It was devastating to me,” she said. “It was like losing a limb. I still miss him every day.”
The following year, the Department of Environmental Quality [DEQ] came and asked if they could test her groundwater because they thought that there may be contamination. “It was the first time I heard of PFAS,” she said at the festival. “They tested my water, and three weeks later they had a team come to my house to give me results. If you’ve ever worked in government you know that if there’s a team coming to your house, it’s not to deliver good news. It wasn’t the Publishers Clearinghouse. My well tested at 24,000 parts per trillion. The EPA guidelines at that time were 70 parts per trillion, and my well was tested over and over, and it tested as high as 80,000 parts per trillion.”
According to Wynn-Stelt, the Christmas tree farm that they lived across the street from had been a dump site for Wolverine Worldwide, a global footwear company based in Michigan. “They had dumped tannery waste throughout the ’70s there by the truckload, and contaminated 28 feet deep and about 30 acres wide,” she said. “That contaminated the groundwater, which spread 25 square miles, and it’s heading to the Grand River, and, as we know, the Grand River heads to Lake Michigan.”
She described how, concerned for her health, she got her blood tested for PFAS chemicals. The results were shocking: 5,000,000 parts per trillion, more than 750 times the national average. Her battle with thyroid cancer in 2000, initially thought to be an anomaly, suddenly made sense. “You know, I wish I could say that my story was the worst, but you’re going to hear other stories that are just like this,” she said. “So if I have any word of advice for people it would be—don’t assume your drinking water is safe.”
Tobyn McNaughton, a mother who lives in Belmont, also spoke at the Water is Life Festival in 2022. Everyone in her family—herself, her husband, and her children—has experienced symptoms and complications from exposure to high levels of PFAS compounds. “Wolverine Worldwide illegally dumped dangerous forever chemicals that leached into our groundwater, into our drinking water,” she said at the festival. According to McNaughton, Wolverine Worldwide downplayed the severity of the contamination to the DEQ, resulting in delayed testing of the community’s groundwater and extra months of unnecessary exposure to the chemicals. “Instead of our water being tested in April 2017, we were not made aware until August 2017,” she said. “[The water] was not actually tested until September.”
The family has been devastated by the effects of the poisoned water. “There are no medications, no procedures to safely remove these chemicals, only time, and that is only what is in our blood. We can never measure what is stored in our tissues or organs,” she said. “We can’t escape PFAS.”
At the festival, Pierce heard the speakers from Rockford/Belmont say how they got whole-house filters, and noted the disparity in her county’s response to the crisis. “I don’t see any signs out there saying ‘no fishing in the Maple River because it’s been contaminated.’ I talked to an Emmet County Commissioner about PFAS at a meeting [in August 2022], and I said, ‘What in the world lets you guys okay this, and give the people only one under-the-counter water filter to use, and that’s the only thing they have? Why can’t you give them a whole-house filter?’ He said, ‘Well, you know, the government is slow,’ and I said, ‘Well, you know my mother’s dying, right?’”
Later, at her mother’s home, Pierce elaborated. “The under-the-counter filters that Emmet County gave us only work on the cold water in the kitchen sink,” she said. “So when you wash your dishes, everyone’s washing with hot water. My mother is fighting with everything she’s got, she’s not letting anything go, but she’s being stolen from us.”
Calling over from her lounger, Mary said her piece. “Test before you do this stuff, you’re causing all these people all this intense pain. It would be different if you could take an antibiotic and be rid of it, but you can’t. It’s going to take you down. Just one side of town we don’t know how many of us are all going to be sick, and how far back and if these kids could get it from being up here [for] so many years… I might’ve lived another 10, 20 years. Longevity is in my family.”
“The whole town needs full filters in every building, not one sink in the whole house. You can’t eat your vegetables watered with PFAS,” Mary continued. “Our trees are all dying; when the guy at the hardware store, Andrea said she wanted one for the bathroom so I could brush my teeth, and he said, ‘You don’t need it for your teeth. Just spit it out. Do you tell your family that, just spit it out?’”
Three days after I visited with Mary Angela Burks and her family, on September 7, 2022, she “walked on”.