Residents air concerns about dioxin study

Published October 4, 2002 in the Midland (MI) Daily News

Beth Medley Bellor

    FREELAND — Many questions swirled throughout a four-hour meeting about dioxin Thursday night. Most conflict arose regarding a proposed health study and who might fund it — The Dow Chemical Co., the likely source of dioxin contamination.

    The crowd numbered 200, including state, county and township officials, area environmentalists, a couple of legislators and three Tittabawassee Township police officers in the back. No one from The Dow Chemical Co. was apparent.

    Dave Johnson, deputy director for public health and chief medical executive of the Michigan Department of Community Health, outlined his agency’s proposal for a comprehensive dioxin exposure and health effects study. Specifically, it would address whether blood sample levels of dioxin in Midland and Tittabawassee River floodplain residents are higher than those of other people, whether there is a correlation between blood sample levels and dioxin levels in the soil, and whether Midland and floodplain residents have elevated rates of diseases scientifically linked to dioxins.

    The proposal includes oversight by a scientific advisory committee, with scientists nominated by the MDCH, Department of Environmental Quality, Dow and the citizens who petitioned for the health consultation that got sampling started. A fifth scientist would be chosen in consultation with the other four.

    Oversight also would come from a stakeholder advisory committee. “All of these meetings that they would conduct should be open meetings,” Johnson added.

    Sally Regelski said she doesn’t like Dow representation on the boards, but she didn’t know if others agreed. Others shouted and applauded in response.

    “The draft proposal really is intended as a draft,” Johnson said. He pointed out that while some feel strongly that community representation should exclude Dow, others consider Dow part of the community.

    David Riddick said he doesn’t understand how Dow, with a clear stake in the outcome of a health study, could be allowed to fund it.

    “To me, this is backwards. This is not the way you do these things,” he said. It is the state’s job to investigate, he said, and if Dow is found culpable, take the company’s money then.

    Dioxin sampling is expensive — about $1,000 per sample. In many cases, samples are taken at three depths at each site. Andrew Hogarth, assistant division chief of the DEQ’s remediation and redevelopment division, estimated after the meeting that Phase I and II soil sampling has cost his agency $300,000.

    Area environmentalists, who petitioned for the health consultation that led to soil sampling, were angry that they learned from a Freedom of Information Act request that Dow representatives flew to Atlanta in April and presented the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry with a proposal for a health study.

    “The fact that they proposed a study is absolutely fact,” Johnson said.

    However, he said, the DEQ and MDCH took that idea, developed it more fully and clarified what would need to happen to make it work — most importantly, what kind of input would be needed.

    “I have no problem with Dow funding this. Polluters should pay,” said Michelle Hurd-Riddick of the Lone Tree Council, which offered a counterproposal.

    The environmental group is asking the ATSDR and MDCH to convene a conversation among stakeholders to review sampling thus far and recommend further sampling; review data on other exposure pathways and recommend further work; help develop recommendations to reduce long-term and short-term exposures; explore the merits of an exposure study for local residents; and explore the merits of developing a health registry for local residents.

    Diane Hebert, one of the petitioners, was upset there were 12 drafts of the health study before she had the opportunity to become involved.

    “We have begged for participation,” she said. She asked for help from legislators, saying, “Dow has not proven that all the dioxin is historical.”

    She urged the audience to oppose any study Dow has developed, saying maybe if she had been involved from the beginning she would feel differently. “This is how I would like to give my comments,” she said, tearing up paper and dropping it on the front table.

    New voices also were heard.

    Midlander Carol Chisholm said, “I don’t trust Dow, and I don’t want them involved in anything to do with this problem.”

    Diane Dalton, an educator in Saginaw County, asked whether the state has pursued grant money for a health study, or other sources besides Dow.

    Yes, Johnson said.

    “The answers aren’t easy when you’re talking about millions and millions of dollars like this,” he said. “We’ll continue to explore other sources of funding.”

    This didn’t please John Taylor of River Watch, who asked whether it was true that if Dow hadn’t stepped forward and offered funding, the ATSDR would be paying for a study.

    Alan Yarborough of the ATSDR said his agency normally funds projects in the range of a couple of hundred thousand dollars. “Currently, within our budget we do not fund any multimillion-dollar studies such as being envisioned here.”

    In addition, this is earlier in the process than ATSDR usually conducts studies, he said. Generally the agency waits until diseases are shown to be statistically high, and there is not yet information linking local dioxin contamination to disease, he explained.

    River Watch meets at 6 p.m. the third Monday of each month at Green Point Environmental Learning Center in Saginaw County, and can be reached at (989) 781-4518.

    Written comments on the proposed health study can be sent to David R. Wade, Ph.D., Division of Environmental and Occupational Epidemiology, Michigan Department of Community Health, P.O. Box 30195, Lansing, MI 48909.

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