They persisted

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Science  17 May 2019:
Vol. 364, Issue 6441, pp. 622-626
DOI: 10.1126/science.364.6441.622

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For more than a century, a sprawling tannery in Rockford, Michigan, churned out leather used to make some of the United States's most popular shoes. The factory emitted a putrid stink, but it enabled the city to thrive. "That's the smell of money," some locals used to say. In 2009, however, shifts in the shoe trade prompted the tannery's owner, Wolverine Worldwide, to close the tannery and move to redevelop the 6-hectare site. And when the company applied for state funds for redevelopment, it said there was no known contamination on it. But Lynn McIntosh, a piano teacher and writer who has lived just a block from the tannery for more than 25 years, was skeptical. And after officials rebuffed pleas to require an environmental survey before rebuilding began, she and a small group of allies launched their own investigation. Now, that sleuthing is having far-reaching impacts in Michigan and beyond. The concerned citizens uncovered evidence that the tannery had contaminated large swaths of land and water with chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs), which researchers have linked to an array of human health problems. And has made Michigan a high-profile, closely watched battleground in a rapidly expanding scientific, political, and legal dispute over the threat that PFASs pose to millions of people across the United States. The stakes are enormous. As surveys reveal that potentially problematic PFAS contamination is more widespread than once thought, industrial facilities, fire departments, water utilities, and the U.S. military could face cleanup and liability costs totaling tens of billions of dollars or more. But there is little agreement among regulators on what a safe level of PFASs is.

  • * Sara Talpos is a journalist in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

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