A recent University of Michigan study that found elevated blood dioxin levels among people who ate meat and produce grown on the Tittabawassee floodplain recommended that people stop farming on dioxin-contaminated soils. But as the spring planting season progresses, locals seem unaware of the warning, which has received little coverage in the local media, and state agencies appear to have no program to inform potential farmers of the health risks they may face.

According to the Michigan Dept. of Community Health, “Polychlorinated dioxins (PCCDs) and polychlorinated furans (PCDFs), referred to collectively as ‘dioxin-like compounds’ or DLCs are persistent compounds that build up in the body, and remain stored in fat and other tissues for years. Health effects of DLCs observed in human studies include: cancer, chloracne, disruption of the endocrine, immune and reproductive systems; and developmental effects in children.”

Dioxin emissions from Dow Chemical’s Midland complex have contaminated a 52 mile long swath of the Saginaw Bay watershed.

A Dow-funded study about dioxin exposure in the region carried out by the University of Michigan since 2003 has publicized its findings that living on dioxin contaminated soils is not associated with increased blood dioxin levels.

However, a recent follow-up study that looked into the circumstances around one man with high blood dioxin levels determined that that man, and 15 of his associates, had been exposed to dioxin through eating meat and vegetables that he had raised on the floodplain. The study showed that these health-damaging compounds remained in the bodies of people who had stopped eating the locally grown food more than a decade ago and recommended that no food be raised on dioxin-contaminated soils.

Back in 2002 state officials created a flier that warned home gardeners to avoid contact with their soil and urged those with livestock to call the Michigan Dept. of Agriculture for advice.

Officials with the Dept. of Agriculture say that the flier was distributed at a public meeting in the area.

Brian Hughes, the MDA staffer listed on that flier as a contact for those with livestock in the floodplain, said that he was never contacted by any farmer with questions about how to reduce risks of dioxin exposure.

Scott Piggot, manager of the Agricultural Ecology Department at the Michigan Farm Bureau, estimates that there are around 5,000 acres of cultivated farm and cropland in the Tittabawassee floodplain.

Several years ago, he said, when state officials issued a warning about reducing contact with soil, he was contacted by farmers with concerns about the impact of the pollution on farmland value, but concerns about the pollution seemed to have died down in recent years.

“[Department of Environmental Quality] had discussed putting out some documentation saying that farmers should use protective gear, not that people should not eat product,” he said.

Piggot said that he was unaware of U-M’s recommendation against farming on dioxin-contaminated soil.

Mitch Larson lives in the Riverside Blvd. neighborhood, an area near where the Tittabawassee and Saginaw rivers come together that was so highly contaminated that in 2008 EPA declared it an imminent threat to human health and issued an emergency order to force Dow to replace the soil.

Larsen said that he stopped raising chickens about eight years ago after state officials found high dioxin levels in the eggs he was feeding his family, but he still grows and eats vegetables and he said that he believes many of the commercial and home farmers in the area are unaware of any warnings about dioxin exposure risk from farming.

“In the last few years everything has pretty much died down,“ he said. “I think the whole fear of it has died down a lot cause so many people got tired of dealing with it.”

Larsen said that he had not heard of the U-M warning about farming until contacted by Michigan messenger, and he said it seems to conflict with advice he got from the state years ago.

“Some government agency told us that you could grow vegetables they just didn’t recommend growing anything that grows in the ground like potatoes, carrots, sugar beets. But tomatoes, green peppers, as long as you washed them before you ate them, you would be fine.”

Last year the U.S Environmental Protection Agency took over responsibility for getting Dow to clean up the region’s dioxin contamination. Since stepping up its involvement in the area EPA has committed to sampling the region’s water supplies for dioxin and has reinforced state efforts to communicate about the risks of eating local fish that are contaminated.

EPA Project Manager Mary Logan said that EPA will work closely with state officials and will take the lead on some education and communication activities but she did not say whether EPA plans to reach out to farmers.