Detroit Tigers outfielder Nicholas Castellanos and at least 24 other current or former Tigers minor league players were potentially exposed to high levels of the emerging contaminant PFAS — nonstick chemicals that can harm human health — as they stayed in a host family’s home during their time with the West Michigan Whitecaps, a Tigers minor league affiliate.

Some of the nation’s leading toxicologists looking at PFAS don’t exactly agree on what — if any — health risks the players face from short-term PFAS exposure, which would have occurred as they drank tap water in the home or ate food cooked with the water. The Tigers’ minor leaguers stayed in the contaminated host home for five or fewer months, for part or all of the April to September season, then presumably received no further PFAS compound exposure.

PFAS compounds have been tied to increased risks for certain cancers, thyroid and liver disease, ulcerative colitis, high cholesterol and other ailments.

Tim and Jill Osbeck of Rockford, Michigan, learned in November 2017 that their residential well water was contaminated with PFAS compounds known as PFOS and PFOA, emanating from a groundwater plume leaching out of a long-closed landfill near their property. The levels in their water, at their peak, tested at more than 250 times the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's lifetime health advisory limit for PFOS and PFOA in drinking water, a level above which a lifetime of exposure could lead to health problems.  

Wolverine Worldwide, a shoe factory, at one time used a gravel mining operation in the area from the 1950s and 1960s as a disposal area for its PFAS-containing sludge wastes. Wolverine Worldwide closed its tannery in 2009, and it was demolished the following year.

The Osbecks have served as a volunteer host family for West Michigan Whitecaps players since 2010, allowing players with the Tigers’ Class-A affiliate to live in their home throughout the five-month season.

A 2018 story released by the Whitecaps on their “Keep-A-Cap Program” notes that in addition to Castellanos, players hosted in the Osbecks’ home between 2010 and 2017 included:

  • Former Tigers pitcher Warwick Saupold
  • Former major league catcher Rob Brantly,now with the AAA Charlotte Knights 
  • Current Tigers minor league pitcher Kyle Funkhouser
  • Current Tigers minor league outfielder Derek Hill.

Matt Manning, one of the top pitchers in the Tigers’ minor league system, also was hosted by the Osbecks, Tim Osbeck told the Free Press in a March interview. Manning pitched for West Michigan in both the 2017 and 2018 seasons, and it wasn’t immediately clear in which of those seasons he was in the home. After the Osbecks learned of their PFAS water contamination in November 2017, Wolverine Worldwide installed a granular activated carbon filtration system in their home that removes contaminants from water.

Tigers outfielder Nick Castellanos was potentially exposed to contaminated water while staying with a host family in the minor leagues. (Photo: Mike Janes, AP)

Castellanos, when told by the Free Press about his potential exposure, said he would do his own research into PFAS and declined further comment.

Funkhouser, interviewed after pitching Tuesday night for the Toledo Mud Hens, the Tigers’ AAA affiliate, said he was not overly concerned about his potential PFAS exposure. Funkhouser said he was hosted in the Osbeck home for only about six weeks, from the start of the 2017 season until about mid-May, when he was promoted to the Tigers’ High-A affiliate in Lakeland, Florida.

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“It kind of is what it is,” he said.

“If there was some kind of study that there was a long-term effect down the road that could happen, yeah, I’d probably be a little more cautious, nervous, see if I could reverse the effects, something like that. Be proactive.”

The identities of at least 19 other potentially PFAS-exposed Whitecaps players hosted in the Osbeck home over the years were not provided to the Free Press by the family or the Whitecaps.

"We're not going to comment until we have more information," Whitecaps director of marketing and media relations Mickey Graham said Wednesday.

The Osbecks are plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit filed by PFAS-exposed families in the Rockford area against Wolverine Worldwide and the 3M Company in Minnesota, which provided PFAS-containing ScotchGard water-resistant compounds to the shoe maker.

The Osbecks, through their attorney, Esther Berezofsky, declined to comment on recent Free Press inquiries about the hosted Whitecaps players. But the couple in March discussed the family’s exposure to the contamination.

“You get angry, you get very angry,” Jill Osbeck said. “You feel violated, when you think your drinking water’s been clean. And you think about, our kids were here, when they were younger, drinking it on a regular basis. And then our grandkids, we were feeding them their formula bottles with our water. It gets you emotionally, very much so.”

Initial testing of the Osbecks’ well in November 2017 showed combined levels of  PFOS and PFOA at more than 8,900 parts per trillion. The EPA's lifetime health advisory level is 70 parts per trillion. Subsequent testing of the Osbecks’ well water showed PFAS levels as high as 17,600 parts per trillion, Jill Osbeck said.

The research into human health effects from PFAS compounds is scant but rising. The federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry notes that available studies suggest links between PFOS and PFOA and increased risks for:

  • Cancer, with PFOA exposure tied to increased risks for testicular and kidney cancer
  • Liver damage
  • Thyroid disease
  • Increased LDL or “bad” cholesterol levels
  • Decreased antibody responses to vaccines
  • Decreased fertility
  • Developmental effects on fetuses, babies and children
  • PFOA exposure has been tied to increased risk for ulcerative colitis.

Much of the human health research to date, however, has involved chemical plant employees and those living near contamination from chemical plants — people exposed to PFAS compounds on an ongoing basis over years.

“The concern with adverse health effects is strictly from chronic exposures since it takes a fairly extended time period for the blood levels to rise when the exposure begins (and fall when it ends),” Dr. David Savitz, a professor of epidemiology in the Brown University School of Public Health, said in an email. 

Though several months of PFAS exposure would be enough to see a rise in the players’ blood, health effects studies are based on steady exposures over extended periods of time, he said.

“So while it's unfortunate that they received this exposure, based on what we know, there is little reason to be concerned about adverse health effects, and given the passage of time, it seems very unlikely that there would be any persistent health concerns,” Savitz said

But Dr. Jamie DeWitt, an associate professor of pharmacology and toxicology at the Brody School of Medicine at East Carolina University, noted that studies on laboratory animals, exposing them to high, short-term exposures of PFAS compounds, resulted in decreased weight, liver impacts and even death.

“Humans excrete these compounds much more slowly than mice,” she said. “That high of a concentration might result in someone having a much higher concentration in their body than someone who was exposed to a lower concentration for a much longer period of time.”

Informed of Savitz's opinion, DeWitt added, "I agree with Dr. Savitz that adverse health outcomes are unlikely, but I can’t say with 100% certainty that they will not occur for a particular individual."

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, PFAS, were used commonly from the 1950s through the 2000s, in industrial processes, aqueous firefighting foam and a host of popular consumer products, including nonstick Teflon cookware, ScotchGard stain protectors, and water-resistant Gore-Tex clothing and shoes. But the features that made the fluorinated compounds so useful also mean that they don’t break down in nature, giving them the ominous nickname “the forever chemicals.”

In an agreement with the EPA, 3M in 2000 moved to phase out its production of ScotchGard and PFOS. PFOA was phased out of U.S. manufacture by 2015.

Contact Keith Matheny: 313-222-5021 or [email protected]. Follow on Twitter @keithmatheny. Free Press staff writer Anthony Fenech contributed to this report.

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