Results back from pilot study of dioxin exposure

Kathie Marchlewski , Midland Daily News


Barbara and Howard Steinmetz are not a part of the ongoing dioxin-induced class action lawsuit. They've watched as neighbors who share the serenity of the Tittabawassee River do battle with The Dow Chemical Co. over contamination that's left its Midland plant and settled into their yards.

"We're not some kind of enviro-nuts," Barbara said. "We've never been crusaders."

The Steinmetzes do worry, however, that they might not live long enough to see a resolution to the two-year-old class action lawsuit now tied up in the Michigan Supreme Court. At 71, Howard has battled two cancers -- non-Hodgkins lymphoma and prostate cancer, which has recently returned. He also has related heart and thyroid problems. Barbara, 67, has had a portion of her stomach removed because of a pre-cancer warning, and has suffered from endometriosis.

Their illnesses have increased their suspicions that dioxin could be a contributor.

"Once we started reading, we learned that all of our multiple conditions can be caused by exposure to dioxin," Barbara said. "There seems to be a connection. If there were not, no one would be concerned about dioxin. Obviously someone 'in the know' -- a lot of people -- know there is a link. If there is this link, we are the victims."

It has long been a matter of debate -- is living on the contaminated flood plain a health hazard? Does inhaling and ingesting contaminated soil mean the toxic manufacturing byproduct will settle into bodies? If so, does it cause disease?

The Steinmetzes and others believe they are closer to some answers. Results of a Michigan Department of Community Health pilot exposure investigation are showing up in mailboxes.

"Our dioxin blood levels are extremely high," Barbara said. The letter from MDCH tells her that her number is "elevated in a much greater percentile category than other people in (her) age group."

It also says the human health effects of dioxin blood levels similar to hers are not known, but warns that it is prudent to limit further exposure.

MDCH spokesman T.J. Bucholz said the agency is uncertain about when or if dioxin levels from the study will be released publicly.

"My primary goal is to make sure individuals have received their results," he said. MDCH staff is expected to meet next week to discuss how the information will be handled and shared.

Meanwhile, people like the Steinmetzes are trying to find some answers with their new-found knowledge. Barbara has sent copies of the results to the family's caregivers. Others report doing the same thing.

Martha Stimpson has battled breast cancer, and her husband has peripheral neuropathy. Both diseases are said to be potential results of dioxin exposure and they, too, have increased levels of dioxin in their blood.

"It kind of brings it home," said Richard Stimpson. "Now it's not someone saying you're contaminated -- you know you are."

For those who are plaintiffs in the lawsuit against Dow, the study results come with mixed emotion.

"The results kind of confirmed what we already expected," said Mary Whitney. The level of dioxin in her blood is higher than others in her age group. So is her husband, Greg's.

Kathy Henry, who along with her husband, Gary, is leading the lawsuit, said she is aware of more than a dozen of the 20 tests that came back with dioxin levels in 75th, 90th and 95th percentiles for age groups.

According to a report released at the International Dioxin Conference and included in MDCH letter, the mean reference range for the age group (45 to 59) of those who shared their results with the Daily News is 16.9 parts per trillion.

The shared results from a sampling of Tittabawassee River flood plain residents:

* A 58-year-old woman: 33 ppt. (above the 95th percentile)

* A 56-year-old man: 17.9 ppt.

* A 47-year-old man: 37 ppt. (above the 95th percentile)

* A 52-year-old man : 29 ppt. (90th percentile)

* A 53-year old woman: 26 ppt. (above the 75th percentile)

According to Dow, which has not been officially informed of results, the numbers flood plain residents are reporting are not high, and no reason for alarm.

"There are background exposures that don't pose any increased cancer risks," said Bob Budzinsky, Dow toxicologist.

For the age group reporting, background levels could be as high as 55.4. Background levels are the amount of dioxin absorbed by populations through the food supply, without additional exposure pathways such as local contamination.

"There is no scientific evidence that background levels like this pose any increased risk," Budzinsky said.

The amount of dioxin absorbed into the body by inhalation or ingestion is too small to increase body burdens, he said. "The amount is so minuscule in comparison to what you would take in your diet."

But Greg Whitney suspects that 12 years of living on the river flood plain has played a part in the fact that his level is higher than the average for his age group.

"Obviously I got it from my yard," he said.

The MDCH pilot study was launched last year in response the local dioxin contamination and blood from those expected to have the highest levels -- those who have lived on the flood plain for many years, working in yards and recreating on the river, was taken first.

A more comprehensive study may be planned in the future and a University of Michigan-conducted, Dow-funded study is under way.

©Midland Daily News 2004

For additional articles like this one, go to the Tittabawasse River Watch web site for complete coverage of the Tittabawassee River Dow Chemical dioxin contamination saga. . The Newspaper / Media page of our site contains an extensive archive of media articles dating back to January 2002. The source organization's web site link is listed to the right of the article, visit often for other news in our area. The Newspaper / Media page may be accessed by scrolling down to the bottom of the CONTENTS section and clicking on the Newspaper/Media link.