Study of Otsego, Plawell cancer data will take months
State officials said it will take time to research health and cancer records specific to the Otsego and Plainwell area, but a recent citizen-initiated survey of chronic illness had raised importance questions that warranted the work.
They spoke at a community gathering at Otsego United Methodist Church on Saturday, April 14,
Kory Groetsch, director of the Environmental Health division at the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services said, “We’re trying to do this in a more comprehensive manner based on questions you raised to us back on March 10.”
That public forum gathered state officials to hear local pleas for an investigation into the causes for what local citizens claimed were health problems due to years of pollution by paper mills along the Kalamazoo River and illegal dumping.
That had been galvanized by former Otsego resident Mary Clark and 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.
It definitely caught the eye of local residents.
Anne Kirby of Cooper Township said she grew up near the Plainwell airport but she was mainly concerned for her daughter’s family, who lived here for 18 years. Her daughter is Molly Wieber; she and her husband are both former Otsego city commissioners.
Kirby said she’s worried for her grandson who lived in Otsego his entire life.
“I’m concerned for their health,” she said. “How did it affect my family? The (survey data) is scary.”
Jeff and Debbie Smith said they have lived a couple miles from the former Menasha plant in Otsego for 21 years.
“We assumed we were north of Menasha, north of Rock-Tenn; we shouldn’t have anything to worry about,” Debbie Smith said.
Jeff Smith said they read about the March meeting and attended Saturday because they wanted to know what was going to happen next.
“We’re really concerned about our drinking water,” he said. “Do we set up the testing?”
The short answer to that is yes and no. Several agencies are working to find out what chemicals to test for first, and other testing has already begun on municipal water systems locally.
More broadly, Groetsch said officials at several levels were looking into the matter with two main strategies.
“One way is to look at the environmental side,” he said. “Is there something you should be concerned about? That’s where there are historic disposal practices that are of concern, there are chemicals of concern.
“Those are questions we need answered.”
He said the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality was checking into those but that it “takes time. We apologize that it takes time, but they’re doing a good job.”
The other side of the investigation is looking at the health issues residents have raised.
“Do we see any unusual rates of disease in the community? This got a fast start,” he said, from Clark’s survey.
Groetsch said his department had analyzed the self-reported data for 394 respondents as of March 11. Since then, the survey has gathered more responses and even given way to another similar survey for a nearby area.
“We see enough here to move forward,” he said.
Of the 109 conditions the catalogued by the survey, there were a range of cancers, immune/endocrine issues and reproductive issues.
While breast cancers showing up in the surveys didn’t seem out of place, Groetsch said the young median ages for several others did.
“Look at brain, 19; cervical, 28; melanoma, 26; and ovarian, 27, that seems a little young,” he said. “Now, I can’t say if that’s statistically scientifically different, today. That’s a question we want to investigate. They raised meaningful questions for us.”
Part of that is just a matter of the limits of the information in the survey. If the cases of breast cancer showed up over a span of 24 years, it might fall into statewide or nationwide averages. If they were more concentrated, he said, that would stand out.
He also pointed out that conclusions are limited by the fact that the survey had tended to be filled out by mostly women, which could skew the data.
Dr. Mark Johnson, regional director for the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, said, “The ovarian and thyroid cancers caught our attention. What info is in the records going back to records of Menasha that might give us some clues about chemicals we can test for?
While further research into non-cancer cases will involve requesting information from local health providers, the state keeps more detailed information about cancer because medical doctors are required to report it. Groetsch said his team is in the process of requesting the cancer data specific to the two local zip codes, 49078 and 49080.
He said delving into the cancer incidence data usually takes at least three months, but it could take as long as six months. That time will be spent accounting for factors such as age; lifetime risks for cancer and other chronic disease increase as people age.
“We know there are differences between race and ethnicity,” he said. “We want to account for that; we want it to match the population here, an apples-to-apples comparison. It takes that amount of time to do this very thoroughly, methodically. We want to bring you bring you back, you know, a definitive—what can be drawn from this data.”
Even that level of details will leave a gap in the understanding of the situation. While that data will include basics about a person’s age and sex and location when they were diagnosed with cancer, it doesn’t include many of the other details that would contribute to their risk.
He said, “It doesn’t tell you, where did they work, what was their lifestyle—the factors you’d want to know to really get definitive answers.
“So, I want to set expectations. This is the next step in.”
Each side of the investigation informed the other, as well. The MDEQ is looking into which chemicals could cause these types of cancers and diseases and was researching whether or not those were present in high enough concentrations in the environment for people to be affected by them.
Dan Peabody, a senior environmental quality analyst with MDEQ and project manager for the Allied Paper Inc./Portage Creek/Kalamazoo River Superfund Site, reviewed available reports of testing done at a variety of the former Menasha site.
The company had a main plant at Farmer and North streets as well as 78 acres north of River Road, a chip yard and three landfills. Menasha shut down in 2005 and was bought by USG a year later.
He said Menasha produced waste in the form of fly ash, scrap waste and sludge. His review of testing done at official disposal areas repeatedly showed levels of contaminants below thresholds of concern.
Even the sludges—the biosolids—that were spread on 47 private farms throughout the area showed very low levels of chemicals such a metals, cyanide and dioxin, below the levels that would trigger intervention.
A tarry byproduct known as a liquor was used as dust control on county roads starting in 1954; Peabody estimated 45 million gallons had been spread in Allegan County.
Records of testing data of that substance becomes available by the early 1980s, detecting no PCBs, the suspected carcinogen polluting the riverbanks of the Kalamazoo River.
He noted a city well was contaminated by high levels of zinc in the late 1960s, something that also impacted several private wells on 106th Avenue. He said the city shut down the well mostly for reasons related to water clarity and hardness.
The ponds that collected the liquor were sampled in 1993 due to concerns that waste oil was being mixed in. There were no pesticides detected and there were low levels of metals.
“They were also analyzed for dioxin and chlorinated solvents, but we have yet to find that data,” he said. “I couldn’t find it in any of the online data. I’m not sure if it’s an issue of the scanned documents. We’re looking for that now.”
He also reported on the limited data available for Rock-Tenn’s 35 acres, which revealed little or contradictory information.
Pam McQueer said she and others were working to start a community awareness group to function as a focal point for communicating upcoming forums for similar information.
McQueer said, “It’s nice to see a lot of people come today. With Mary’s survey, and the need to look into this area, it only shows that we as community need to pull together in a productive manner.
“We’re getting nothing but full support from each and every agency. Thank you for sharing your stories; all of your voices important.”
Chris Newland lived next to the Menasha dump site for more than 20 years in the 1970s and 1980s. A former Pfizer employee, he’s hoping state and federal agencies do some serious testing of the site.
“This is gaining momentum. That’s what I wanted,” Newland said. His research into the liquor industrial sludge shows that it is a known carrier for dioxin, depending on the chemical processes it has undergone.
Another local resident said the agencies should clarify whether or not the levels for contaminants that were “below criteria” were below current actionable levels.
“Because, some of those acceptable levels have been lowered over the years,” he said.
He also questioned the absence of the data on the dioxin testing.
“Why don’t you have that set? ...It would be very good for the state to focus on that kind of thing, because when you have the info and statistics on everything else except the one thing that’s the big, red-flag issue... that makes it look pretty shady.”
Peabody said he could only report on the data he had available, but noted that the substance used for the road binder program did show at least one other test for dioxin that was below acceptable levels.
Loree Bagley of Plainwell said she worked at Rock Tenn for 20 years and she wanted to know more about the company’s dump site across the street from the main site.
“I believe that property is something that needs to be investigated,” she said.
Dave Heywood, district supervisor at the MDEQ Kalamazoo office, said, “We do have some information about the dump... (it) had some testing done and there were some very relatively low detections of PCBs. It’s unclear what the source was.”
He said they were found in the ground and the site was capped in 1990. Heywood also noted PCBs tended not to travel through groundwater and instead bound readily to sediment.
PCBs are being cleaned up from the Kalamazoo River banks because even low concentrations of the chemical eroding into the water collects in fish in much higher concentrations.
Bagley said, “I’m most interested in the generations to come. What we in this room have been exposed to, it’s already done. So, a preventative measure... our children, our grandchildren, our great-grandchildren—those who come after us. We need to care for them. And that’s my hope.”
Contact Ryan Lewis at email@example.com or (269) 673-5534.