Dioxin detected in 14 Otsego-area wells
While the levels were not known, state and local health officials got word to 16 households in the Otsego and Plainwell area over the weekend that dioxin showed up in a test of their well water.
The results are preliminary, and re-testing will be done, but Eden Wells, chief medical executive for the Michigan Department of Health & Human Services, said residents at those wells needed to use alternate drinking water.
“It’s a screen, but it tells us enough to where... this was something where we needed to get word out, let people know,” Wells said at a press briefing Saturday, Sept. 1, at Plainwell Public Safety. “If that signal’s true, we want to be the most proactive.”
Officials did not publicly release which homes had tested positive, saying only that 14 were in Allegan County and two were in Alamo Township.
After a public effort to spur state agencies to action earlier this year, 56 private wells were tested in July for hundreds of chemicals connected to waste from local paper mills and that were dumped locally and applied to fields and roads in the area decades ago.
Allegan County Health Department health officer Angelique Joynes said the samples were being tested for many types of dioxins as well as dozens of other contaminants. While 16 wells showed the presence of two types of dioxin so far, full results may show other wells contain different types of dioxins.
Wells said, “It’s very preliminary. It just tells us there’s a signal there of dioxin. We don’t have all the dioxins and we don’t even have all the wells back yet that were sampled.”
Dioxins are a group of chemicals that may be formed during chemical and paper manufacturing. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, dioxins are highly toxic and can cause cancer, reproductive and developmental problems, damage to the immune system, and can interfere with hormones.
Wells said, “Drinking is the main issue. If you are one of these households contacted by the local health department, it’s okay to be washing hands (and bathing) but we don’t want the ingestion, so mainly the drinking the cooking. Dioxin does not absorb well through skin.”
Pam McQueer, area resident and founder of the community action group that has helped be link between the agencies and the public, said the news was bad but she was grateful for the work the agencies were providing.
“The results of the test are going to scare everybody, including myself,” McQueer said. “With Parchment (wells showing PFAS contamination) being so fresh in everyone’s mind and with Flint. People really truly don’t know what to think.
“But thankful these agencies are doing exactly what they promised to do.”
She also thanked former Otsego resident Mary Zack for first raising alarm bells through the Facebook page “Justice for Otsego,” which served as a forum for concerns and as a link to an online survey about residents’ serious medical conditions, including cancer diagnoses.
“Thank god for Mary Zack that she opened our eyes,” she said.
Dave Heywood with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s Kalamazoo office said full results should be known in approximately a week. Those definitive results would say which types of dioxin and other contaminants showed up and in what amounts in each well. There will be additional testing for other dioxin-like chemicals.
“That’s for the first sample collected,” Heywood said. “We’re going to go out and resample the wells where they have the detections to confirm the results. It’s not uncommon for there to be variability with laboratories; sometimes there’s lab error.”
That exact scenario played out earlier in the summer for a Pullman apartment complex’s water supply; a lab provided a false detection of cadmium there. DEQ officials said then that those types of mistakes are rare.
Heywood said the DEQ vets the labs it works with and considers the lab testing Otsego’s results to be reliable.
Residents with questions can call the Allegan County Health Department’s hotline at (269) 686-4546 from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Residents can also contact the MDHHS toxicologist at 1-800-648-6942 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday for further information about dioxins.
It is too early to say how the community will contend with the contamination.
Heywood said nearby city wells had shown no detection of one type of dioxin compound.
“The City of Otsego and Otsego Township, they’re going to be asked to go back and look at those results and the data to be able to complete the full picture of what’s in the city system.
“Carbon filtration removes dioxin. At this point, it’s premature to say whether or not that’s going to be an appropriate response. Not only for the city wells, but also for the private wells”
Wells said toxicologists were already speaking with filtration manufacturers to see if that would work as at least an intermediate solution.
Wells said state toxicologists have worked with dioxin issues before in the middle of the state. She said they will gather all of the data from the testing to piece together where the contamination is coming from and who is at risk.
“This is going to be a lot of analysis. This isn’t just looking at these tests,” she said. “They’ll be looking at where the wells are, who nearby may be at risk, what is the water flow underneath the homes, who’s well is at what depth—so many questions have yet to be answered.”
She said even drawing blood from residents now, for example, won’t paint a full picture of a person’s risk, because that won’t tell how much contamination the person had been exposed to in the past.
“We can measure the dioxin. It won’t tell how much at risk of a health problem you are directly,” Wells said, due in part to individuals’ situations. Some, for example, could have had a job at which they worked with, or were exposed to, more chemicals. “Health behaviors, genetics, occupation, all of that becomes rather individualized.”
She did say the state health department would be able to make better assessments for risk for the community and even parts of the community, as with rates of cancer.
“We’re still going to be here. Our knowledge has increased today, but we need a lot more to get a better picture of where we’re going,” Wells said.
McQueer said she and others with the community action group had witnessed the hard work of those going out and collecting the well water samples. She said she understands that other water crises might play havoc with the public’s trust in the agencies.
“But each and every agency is addressing this head-on, and they’re going to be aggressive and proactive,” she said. “I’m honored to be working alongside all of them.”
As doctor of naturopathy getting ready to open a wellness center, and through her role with the community action group, she said people had been asking her often what all the updates over the past few months had meant. Her phone had been ringing constantly since news of the dioxin broke.
Saturday, for the first time, she shared that the industrial contamination in the area had likely directly affected her.
She lived next to an industrial site in the area in 1978 and 1979. While there, she came down with an eye disease that blinded her for six months and was, doctors told her, the first of its kind.
“Here we are 40 years later, and the answers are coming,” she said. “This is going to be difficult for me. It brings back a lot of tough memories for me. It may not look like it’s bad on the outside, but on the inside (I’m) a volcano.”
But the test results brought a kind of relief.
“It starts putting pieces of puzzle together for me,” McQueer said. “I made it a point when I decided to be a part of the community action group that I would stand up and be the voice of those who had maybe lost their lives as a result of the negligence of some of these companies that are mishandling chemicals.
“I care for my community, where I’ve lived for 40-plus years,” she said. “I don’t ask people to feel bad for me, but I’m coming forward to say that if I can trust these agencies, so can these people today. They are going to help us connect these pieces together.”
Contact Ryan Lewis at firstname.lastname@example.org or (269) 673-5534.