Residents' dioxin levels higher near Dow, study shows

Court tosses part of families' suit

July 14, 2005


Dioxin levels in people living on contaminated land along the Tittabawassee River are higher than average, according to a pilot study of 20 residents released by the state health department Wednesday.

In a related development, the state's Supreme Court ruled that residents are not entitled to sue Dow Chemical Co. -- where the dioxin originated -- for costs associated with medical monitoring for future health problems. The ruling does not affect the second part of the class action, which seeks compensation for the loss of property values along the Tittabawassee.

For decades, Dow's Midland headquarters released dioxin -- a by-product of combustion and chemical manufacturing -- into the river and air. Though large-scale releases ended more than 30 years ago, the chemical continues to plague the river valley, where it has prompted consumption advisories for fish and some species of wild game.

In some forms, dioxin is a known cancer-causing chemical, and studies on animals link it to hormone disruption, damaged fetal development, suppressed immune systems and diabetes. Humans, especially fetuses and infants, are at risk of similar damage. But it is unclear how much dioxin it takes to create a significant risk to a person.

State regulators and Dow have wrestled for years -- in an often-contentious dialogue -- to agree on a comprehensive cleanup plan for Midland, where many areas exceed state dioxin standards, and along the river valley where the pollutant exists in even greater concentrations.

In Wednesday's developments:

•A 5-2 state Supreme Court ruling threw out part of a lawsuit filed by hundreds of families that sought a Dow trust fund to pay for medical testing of people who live in contaminated areas.

"Mere exposure to a toxic substance and the increased risk of physical injury do not constitute an 'injury' for tort purposes," the opinion read.

Kathy Henry, who with her husband, Gary Henry, are the lead plaintiffs in the suit, said the portion of the lawsuit seeking damage for lost property values along the river will continue.

•The Michigan Department of Community Health study showed that blood dioxin levels were above average in people who lived on land known to be contaminated with dioxin. Five of the 20 study participants were in the top 10% of dioxin levels for their age groups, and two were in the top 5%.

Typically, 95% of a person's dioxin intake is from fatty foods such as dairy products and meat, particularly fish. In areas with contaminated soil, studies are under way to determine how much additional dioxin might be ingested from exposure to dust and dirt.

State health department officials were not available for comment on the study Wednesday, but an agency news release warned against drawing broad conclusions from a study of 20 people.

A comprehensive study of river valley residents being conducted by the University of Michigan will provide better answers to questions about dioxin levels in residents who live in the floodplain. Results are expected by late next year.

Contact HUGH McDIARMID JR. at 248-351-3295 or

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