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.
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