PFAS found in Thunder Bay River foam

ALPENA — A potentially harmful chemical has been found in foam on the Thunder Bay River, according to the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy.

A sample of the foam taken from the river near downtown Alpena showed a level of 490 parts per trillion of perfluorooctanesulfonic acid, also known as PFOS, one of the two chemicals — along with perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA — known collectively as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS.

The state has warned people against touching foam on rivers known to be contaminated with PFAS, but the Thunder Bay River has not been on that list.

There is no set health standard for river foam. The state’s PFOS standard for surface water on a drinking water source is 11 ppt. The standard is 12 ppt for surface water for a non-drinking water source.

Janice Adams, senior geologist at DEGLE, warned that people should not compare the PFOS level in the Thunder Bay River foam to standards for surface water and drinking water, because they are not related.

“It would be comparing apples to oranges, even though they are both in the water,” she said.

The Thunder Bay levels are not nearly the highest discovered in Michigan. Foam on Lake Etten, near the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Oscoda, tested at 165,000 ppt, for example.

With the Thunder Bay River foam results back, it will now be up to a state toxicologist and local health officials to determine if any further action is needed.

Until an established level for safety is set locally, Denise Bryan, health officer at District Health Departments No. 4 and No. 2, urged people to take preventative measures. Foam can be created in water for many reasons and may not contain PFAS, she said, but it is better to take precautions.

“The best thing is to stay away from it and not come into contact with it,” she said. “Be careful not to ingest it, and, if you touch it or get it on you, rinse yourself off in some water away from the foam and shower when you get home.”

Bryan said to also be mindful of not allowing pets to swim or drink near areas where there is foam.

PFAS has also been found on the site of a former tannery in Alpena and at the Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center. PFAS has not been found in the city’s drinking water.

PFAS is a chemical long found in firefighting foam and other products only recently seen as a health risk possibly linked to cancer, fertility in women, and more.


In addition to the foam, the state in April tested stormwater drainage from the site of the former tannery on Johnson Street and surface water on the Thunder Bay River. Those tests showed minimal amounts of PFOS.

Adams said tests have been taking place at various locations above and below the 9th Avenue dam, and all surface water tests showed levels well below the 12 ppt standard.

Surface water tests were also done in the river near the intersection of Carter Street and 3rd Avenue, behind the hospital, near Rotary Mill Island Park, and on stormwater draining from a culvert near the skate park on 9th Avenue.

Adams said surface water near Island Park peaked at about 7 ppt, and there were some readings in the 1 and 2 ppt range.

“It had some PFAS components in them, but they were relatively low,” Adams said. “But it was detected. There was not any detected in the storm drain water.”

Further tests are expected to be done this summer and groundwater monitoring wells will be installed.


Bryan, of the local health department, is well-versed with the science and ramifications of PFAS, having worked on the contamination at the former air base in Oscoda.

Bryan said the case in Alpena is different, but any potential contamination will be taken seriously.

She said test results on the foam from Alpena have been shared with one of the state’s toxicologists, who will review them and then consult with her and staff at District Health Department No.4 to determine if action needs to be taken.

“There have been questions on the foam in Alpena, and we are awaiting our health consultation now,” Bryan said. “Right now, we are sort of in a holding pattern until we know what the recommendation from the toxicologist is.”

Bryan said it took as much as two years to receive a health consultation in the Oscoda case, but she said the state and other interested parties now have a better handle on how to address PFAS-related situations and she suspects answers to the Thunder Bay River questions won’t take that long.

State Rep. Sue Allor, R-Wolverine, who represents Northeast Michigan, has been active in the PFAS contamination matter in Oscoda and at the Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center. Allor said she will urge the state to continue to provide funding for PFAS issues and to communities impacted by PFAS contamination.

“There are still a lot of unknowns about PFAS and research is ongoing,” she said. “As we learn more, it allows us to act accordingly. We all need to be extremely cautious and protect ourselves from this until we learn more about the substances and the health and environmental impacts from it.”

In a press release, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services said foam which may contain PFAS is bright white and lightweight. It tends to pile up like shaving cream and is slippery until it begins to dry, when it becomes sticky.

Adams, of DEGLE, said that, if anyone comes across a suspicious foam, they can contact her office in Gaylord by calling 989-705-3434.

Steve Schulwitz can be reached at 989-358-5689 at sschulwitz@thealpenanews.com. Follow him on Twitter @ss_alpeanews.com.


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