Hundreds await test for dioxin

Friday, May 21, 2004


The University of Michigan is out for blood.

Researchers will prick into the politically charged and legally contentious dioxin debate this summer to determine how much dioxin is in residents' blood.

The $10 million study will combine blood samples with tests of household dust and soil. Scientists want to know if there is a connection between dioxin in the ground and dioxin in the bloodstream.

Lead researcher David H. Garabrant, a professor of occupational medicine and epidemiology at U-M, said a team of more than 60 surveyors will begin work in July, gathering information from residents along the Tittabawassee River and in neighborhoods outside the floodplain in Saginaw and Midland counties.

"Our intent is to determine whether living on contaminated soil could explain high dioxin levels in blood," Garabrant said.

The study is meant to answer the elusive question of whether dioxin contamination along the Tittabawassee River has slipped into residents' bloodstream.

Dow Chemical Co. doesn't think it has, not to the point that it would hurt anybody. The company, which is paying for the study, believes it will prove its point.

"Based on everything we know, it's unlikely that anyone in this community has absorbed enough dioxin from soils to have any health effects," said Susan Carrington, director of Dow's dioxin initiative.

The study will not address the health effects of dioxin. However, it will show whether residents along the Tittabawassee River have more dioxin in their blood than people elsewhere.

Researchers plan to include other information about diet, age and soil contamination to determine how the toxin got into participants' bodies.

The study will include 350 residents along the Tittabawassee River and 175 outside the floodplain in Saginaw and Midland counties.

Researchers also will test 175 residents in Jackson and Calhoun counties in southern Michigan -- communities that have similar demographics but no known dioxin pollution. Sampling is scheduled to begin this fall and continue until late 2006.

Garabrant plans to publish his findings in 2007 once data is gathered and analyzed for populations inside and outside the Tri-Cities.

Despite Dow's financial commitment to the project, Garabrant maintains that the study is independent and scientifically sound -- qualities that have drawn fire by state and federal health officials.

Checks and balances

Officials within the state Department of Community Health and the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry have argued for additional checks and balances within the study to guard against influence from Dow.

They fear accusations of bias could undermine the study, whether or not the claims are true.

"Let's not underestimate perception," said David Wade, director of the environmental and occupational epidemiology division for the state Department of Community Health. "You can have the best science, but if you can't sell it to the public then what good is it?"

Health officials have asked, among other things, to have the nonprofit Michigan Public Health Institute select and supervise a scientific advisory board for the study. They said a third party would add "neutrality and credibility" to the process.

Garabrant rejected the idea. He said the Public Health Institute, which is governed by representatives from the state health department and U-M, would introduce new conflicts of interest into the process. He also said it would compromise the university's academic freedom and encumber the process unnecessarily.

However, Garabrant has provided the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry veto power over candidates for the science advisory panel. He also has given the agency power to audit the study's data.

Wade would not say the department is comfortable with the study, but said dialogue is continuing between U-M and state health officials.

While Garabrant has incorporated some of the state's comments, Wade said transparency remains an issue.

"The science is fine," he said. "We can tweak that. Our concern all along is that the study be very transparent and strongly independent of Dow Chemical."

The public eye

U-M researchers have hired Princing & Ewend, a Saginaw-based public relations and marketing company, to develop a public outreach campaign for the study.

"We need to make sure they (residents) understand the reasons for the study," said Andrea Fisher, president of Princing & Ewend.

The company has conducted four focus groups this week to find out how much people know about dioxin. They will use that input to develop a broader informational campaign.

Princing & Ewend also is interviewing leaders within the business, education, public health and political communities to gauge their knowledge of dioxin and to solicit nominations for a community advisory panel for the study. t

Jeremiah Stettler is a staff writer for The Saginaw News. You may reach him at 776-9685.

© 2004 Saginaw News


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.