Dow does indeed pollute Michigan’s water

12/9/04

To the Daily:

Your Nov. 4 editorial on Dow Chemical’s failure to take responsibility for the messes it has made should be commended. Dow’s response, however, must be rebutted in order so that your readers are not misled about one of the most important environmental controversies in the state.

Dow has contaminated the entire Tittabawassee River floodplain from its global headquarters in Midland for 22 miles to its confluence with the Saginaw River. From there, the Saginaw River flows another 20 miles to Saginaw Bay and Lake Huron. Dioxin in soils and sediments can be "fingerprinted" with new technology. That data suggests that Dow’s dioxin reaches all the way to the bay. While the bulk of Dow’s dioxin is likely from historical practices, Dow continues to discharge a small amount of dioxin from its manufacturing plant and to dispose of enormous on-site reservoirs of dioxin in its landfill.

At first, before the dioxin was "fingerprinted," Dow denied responsibility for it. But as additional testing data mounted, the company switched tactics. Dow’s current tactic is to claim that living in and near dioxin-contaminated areas does not result in elevated levels of dioxin in the body, and even if it did, that dioxin is not toxic.

Unfortunately, the facts suggest otherwise. A recent small sample of residents living in the dioxin-contaminated area found higher than average levels of dioxin in their blood. And the studies on dioxin’s toxicity would fill a lecture hall. Expert agencies like the International Agency for Research on Cancer have determined that the most toxic kind of dioxin is a known human carcinogen. The Environmental Protection Agency warns that dioxin is a potent immune hormone and reproductive system toxicant. It is especially toxic to the developing baby. The EPA further warns that, because of widespread dispersal of dioxin, and because it doesn’t break down in the environment, but builds up in the food chain, some of us in the general population may already have health impacts from exposure to dioxin.

Dow continues to claim that its workers show no ill effects from dioxin. What it doesn’t mention is that every other major worker study has found a statistically significant relationship between exposure and cancer. Further, cancer is only one of a host of health effects associated with dioxin exposure.

Dow continually quotes a state agency that dioxin has not been demonstrated to have caused harm to people in the watershed. That is because a health study has not been done, and such a study would be difficult to conduct. That does not mean that harm has not occurred.

We do know that the wildlife in the area is both contaminated with dioxin and likely to experience health impacts as a result. Dow’s own wildgame study found elevated levels of dioxin in deer and turkey that graze in the area. That data led the state of Michigan to issue in the last two months what was only the second wild game advisory in the history of the state.

Experts also conducted an ecological risk assessment and found that wildlife in the area were at risk for impairments because of the levels of dioxin in the soils and sediments. Those levels also exceed the state’s human health-based standard — in some places, the levels are 80 times higher than the level the state developed to protect human health.

It’s time for Dow to take responsibility, to formulate a workable cleanup plan with community input and to get to work to clean up this floodplain. The Tittabawassee River empties the largest watershed in the Great Lakes. Dow’s contamination threatens the integrity of our Great Lakes ecosystem, a precious gift to all of us in the region. The Great Lakes are part of our shared public trust, and each of us, individuals and corporations, but particularly the companies that have profited so handsomely from the resource, share in the responsibility for its protection and restoration.

Tracey Easthope

The letter writer is the director of the Environmental Health Project Ecology Center, a nonprofit environmental organization based in Ann Arbor.