Dow Chemical “Contributions” to the Tittabawassee
I grew up in mid-Michigan, in a suburb of Saginaw. We had lakes and rivers nearby for fishing, and large wooded areas for seasonal hunting. The climate is much cooler than here in Arizona. In the winter, it was common to cross the Saginaw, Tittabawassee and other regional rivers on snowmobiles. It was also common for vehicles to drive out on Saginaw Bay of Lake Huron, and drill fishing holes in the ice. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, that freezing began to occur less frequently. It became common for the Saginaw River to remain unfrozen during the winter. As a child, I did not recognize it as a change.
More astute adults and scientists noticed this metamorphosis, and began to investigate why. What they found was a significant change in the chemicals dissolved in the water. Many miles up the river from Saginaw is Midland, Michigan: the home of Dow Chemical.
For nearly a century, Dow Chemical had been releasing dioxins from its manufacturing process into the Tittabawassee River and the atmosphere. These dioxins included polychlorinated dibenzofurans (PCDFs), polychlorinateddibenzo-p-dioxins (PCDDs), 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin equivalents (TEQs), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and others (Seston, 2011). Dioxins are toxic chemicals so dangerous that they are measured in trillionths of a gram, and these take years to work through the environment and living organisms. These bioaccumulated dioxins pose various health risks from cancer to birth defects.
The pollution became significant enough for EPA to warn people not to eat the fish from the rivers. Additional evaluations of the environment around the Midland Dow Chemical facility showed elevated levels of these dioxins in the soil. This prompted further warnings against the consumption of plants and wild game, such as white-tailed deer and wild turkeys. Studies by University of Michigan and other scientific leaders found significant accumulation of those dioxins in blue heron, kingfisher, great horned owl, mink, and squirrels. (Hedgeman, 2009)
A report by Ecotoxicology and Environmental Safety studied the accumulation of PCDD/DF and TEQ in the great blue heron. The great blue heron is labeled a receptor species, because it feeds on other fish which increases its concentration of contaminants: bioaccumulation. This breed of fish showed a multifold increase in the TEQs. “PCDD/DFs were normalized to TEQ, and fold differences in the [average daily dose], increased, being 150- to 190-fold greater along the [Tittabawassee River] and 36-fold greater along the [Saginaw River] than they were in the [reference area]” (Seston, 2011).
Studies published in 2008 exposed significant concentrations of lung and breast cancer in areas surrounding the Tittabawassee River. “Results of the study suggest that geographic locations in close proximity to the river are associated with high risk of breast cancer, while the spatial clusters of lung cancer were detected in locations that are in close proximity to point source pollution” (Guajardo, 2008).
Various investigations by state and federal agencies discovered Dow Chemical knew of the effects on the population, wildlife, and environment. The company invested in advertising, campaigning, and falsifying data to conceal its knowledge and actions. Dow Chemical attempted to hide information that demonstrated the dioxin in Agent Orange caused liver damage, nervous disorders, birth defects, and other health problems. Part of Agent Orange was later used in herbicides for food source plants. They were aware of these ill effects as early as 1965, during the Vietnam War, where Agent Orange was used and impacted American servicemen and populations in Vietnam. In the mid 1980s, investigations into environmental impact were conducted by the EPA. It came to light that Dow Chemical had gained access to those EPA reports and modified them prior to submission to public record. (Shabecoff, 1983)
In the late 1990s and more in the 2000s, Dow Chemical has begun cleanup efforts in the Tittabawassee and Saginaw Rivers, as well as other affected areas, including Saginaw Bay and Lake Huron. There is a lot of work that needs to be done, but the rivers show improvement. Saginaw River has begun to freeze in winter. Despite the warnings to avoid consuming the freshwater fish, many Michiganders have begun to indulge in the regionally loved staple.
Guajardo, Olga A. “A critical assessment of geographic clusters of breast and lung cancer incidences among residents living near the Tittabawassee River, Michigan.” Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2008. 1456947. Accessed 25 September 2016. Web address: <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2798568/>.
Hedgeman, Elizabeth et al. “The University of Michigan Dioxin Exposure Study: Population Survey Results and Serum Concentrations for Polychlorinated Dioxins, Furans, and Biphenyls.” Environmental Health Perspectives 117.5 (2009): 811–817. PMC. Accessed 25 September 2016. Web address: <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2685846/>.
Seston, Rita, et al. “Dietary exposure of great blue heron (Ardea herodias) to PCDD/DFs in the Tittabawassee River floodplain, MI, USA.” Ecotoxicology and Environmental Safety. March 2011: 74.3; 494-503. Accessed 25 September 2016. Web address: <http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ecoenv.2010.10.024>.
Shabecoff, Philip. “Schemer says E.P.A. aide let Dow delete dioxin tie in draft report.” New York Times. 16 March 1983. Accessed 25 September 2016. Web address: <http://www.nytimes.com/1983/03/16/us/scheuer-says-epa-aide-let-dow-delete-dioxin-tie-in-draft-report.html>.