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Saginaw News Editorial, 07/24/05

Court cautious in dioxin case, Sunday, July 24, 2005

Everyone agrees there are elevated levels of dioxin in the Tittabawassee River floodplain. We also know that the state has issued advisories against consuming fish and some wild game in the floodplain.

Yet there is far less certainty about the level of human exposure to the chemical compound, which is linked to cancer and other health problems. There's even less information about how much dioxin it takes to increase the health risks -- although nearly everyone agrees dioxin is bad for humans.

Given those facts, both known and unknown, the recent state Supreme Court ruling relieving Dow Chemical of liability for medical testing for dioxin was reasonable. There's still only a small pool of evidence of increased dioxin exposure, and the court was correct to draw the line at actual illness, rather than any potential injury or sickness that might happen in the future.

Chief Justice Maura D. Corrigan, in her majority opinion, rightly pointed out the enormous potential for lawsuit abuse -- and damaging economic consequences -- had the court settled on the lower standard.

The residents in the floodplain involved in the battle with chemical giant Dow, one of the region's largest employers, can now proceed with their lawsuit over a decline in property values along the river.

Meanwhile, studies continue into the dioxin levels in residents. The state Department of Community Health issued the results of its own pilot study this month showing elevated levels of dioxin in 20 floodplain residents. The state was quick to point out that the study group was too small to draw any conclusions. Dr. David Garabrant, the University of Michigan researcher conducting a wider-scale inquiry into exposure, echoed that concern. His group will complete its study next year.

The state must continue to keep floodplain residents informed as more data become available on dioxin exposure. It must also continue to work on finding a reasonable remediation plan that balances the region's economic interests with any health problems linked to dioxin.

Dow and the Department of Environmental Quality have negotiated an initial clean-up plan. Although the progress is frustratingly slow, until mid-Michigan residents know more about their exposure and the potential health effects, a cautious approach is the proper path.

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