Thursday, May 27, 2004
JEREMIAH STETTLERTHE SAGINAW NEWS
MIDLAND -- While the sky isn't falling, citizens of Dow Chemical Co.'s hometown are protesting state-mandated soil sampling for a toxin that fell out of it.
They fear such testing could expose up to 8,800 households to a "facility" designation attached to properties with dioxin levels above the state standard of 90 parts per trillion.
Midland residents gathered en masse Wednesday at the Midland Center for the Arts, asking state health officials to explain the reasons and possible implications of soil testing in the Dow-centered community.
State regulators believe that Dow tainted properties downwind with a combustion-related pollutant known as dioxin.
Protesters waved signs along the heavily-traveled Eastman corridor before the meeting. "We're not afraid of good science. We're afraid of bad science," one read.
Other citizens clogged the conference center's lobby and filled the 1,600-seat auditorium to capacity.
"This is going to destroy the area," Midland resident Gary Phillips, 57, said of the proposed sampling. "We're going to have a reputation like Times Beach, Mo., or Niagara, N.Y. (where communities were scarred by industrial contamination) for no real reason at all.
"Nobody is going to want to live here because of the fear these people are creating."
Despite the roar of applause that followed statements by Dow Chemical Co. and community leaders who challenged the state Department of Environmental Quality, agency Director Steve Chester defended state intervention.
"No state in the country waits for adverse health effects before it reacts," he said.
Chester said recent findings about dioxin have revealed a contaminant that is "more toxic than previously thought."
While the state allows dioxin levels up to 90 parts per trillion, the director said formulas proposed under the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's dioxin reassessment could drop the standard as low as 12 parts per trillion.
He said the state must protect the most sensitive populations against various forms of cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, birth defects, blood disease and immunodeficiencies that researchers have linked to high dioxin exposure.
Susan Carrington, director of Dow's Dioxin Initiative, said the company will abide by the state's soil sampling requirements, which are mandated under its operating license.
However, she called the state's 90 parts per trillion standard "flawed."
"They assume that people are eating twice as much dirt as the national average, that they have mud on their skin 24 hours a day for eight months out of the year and that they absorb twice as much dioxin through their skin as what the regulatory agents' own scientists believe is absorbed," Carrington said.
Those assumptions and others have created an artificially low standard, she said. The company believes the federal standard of 1,000 parts per trillion is more appropriate.
Carrington reaffirmed Dow's position that dioxin levels are too low in Midland and on properties downstream of Dow along the Tittabawassee River to harm human health.
Tom McCann, 70, claims no love for Dow. Though once employed by the chemical giant, Dow fired him.
But that isn't stopping the Midland man from defending his property against soil sampling and a possible "facility" designation that could have far-reaching financial implications for his property.
If state officials wanted to act, McCann said, they should have done so in the mid-1980s, when testing revealed elevated dioxin levels.
"The DEQ is coming over here after Dow has been cleaning up its act for 20 years," he said. "It's like having the fire department come to your house 20 years after your house has burned down. It makes about as much sense to me."
McCann, who has lived for 50 years on properties downwind of Dow, said residents are getting more dioxin through their food these days than from their properties. If health officials want to address the problem, they should start there, he said.
Midland officials estimate that soil sampling could affect 8,800 households and 21,300 properties within two miles of Dow. Tests already have revealed dioxin concentrations above the state standard.
The lingering question is whether those concentrations have any impact on the community's health.
Michael Krecek, director and health officer of the Midland County Health Department, believes the effects are minimal. He said Midland residents generally are healthier than the state population.
He noted fewer cases of cancer and cancer-related deaths in Midland than found statewide. He reported no unusual trends in birth defects.
The only possible link between dioxin and human health is an elevated diabetes rate in Midland, Krecek said. The community exceeds both state and national standards.
Krecek doubts a connection.
"We would like to see the Department of Environmental Quality and Department of Community Health determine a relationship between the soil and health effects (of dioxin)," he said. "At this point, we do not believe that relationship exists."
Federal health officials have labeled the most toxic form of dioxin a "known human carcinogen," but have cast a shadow of uncertainty over the mixture of dioxins that people typically touch, breathe and ingest. Those toxins are considered "likely" carcinogens.
Researchers have linked the contaminant to health ailments such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, birth defects, blood disease and increased cancer risks in studies of people who have suffered high exposure. They also noted changes in liver enzymes, hormonal effects and problems with nervous system development in many species, including humans.
The state has not yet approved soil testing in Midland. That approval likely will come in mid-June when the state agency approves Dow's cleanup plan for Midland and the Tittabawassee River floodplain. t
Jeremiah Stettler is a staff writer for The Saginaw News. You may reach him at 776-9685.
© 2004 Saginaw News
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