OTSEGO, Mich. — Health concerns continue to rise among residents in Otsego after the Allegan County Health Department reported that low levels of the pollutant dioxin was found in 17 private wells.
“There’s a slight panic out there because your neighbor tested hot,” said resident Chris Newland. “Now you want to get tested.”
What scares residents most, he said, is that dioxin has been closely linked to cancer. He said it’s been connected to autoimmune diseases and reproductive issues.
“Diabetes, heart disease [too] but the main ones are cancer,” Newland said during an interview on Wednesday. “This area, thanks to Mary Zack’s group, has shown that there are tons of cancer clusters in this area.”
Back in the spring, Zack founded the group Justice for Otsegoin an effort to unite individuals who have been affected by cancer and want to know why. By mid-March she discovered, through a survey members took, that at least 600 people have had cancer in Otsego, where she grew up.
“I’m tired of going to potlucks trying to raise money for people's kids that have a brain tumor because they’re in 6th grade,” Newland said. “It’s really sad to pick up a paper and read about some obituary where you knew the person and they died of cancer.”
All of the group’s research was presented at a town hall in April. Since then the Health Department said they worked alongside the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to test wells and sample the water, finding dioxin in those 17 wells.
“Dioxins and another category called furans are chemical waste products of paper manufacturing,” said Dr. Richard Tooker, the medical director with the Allegan County Health Department. “We’ve worked with state and federal officials to identify what possible chemicals we might expect to find based along paper mill industry along the Kalamazoo River.”
Newland said many residents believe that the dioxin stems from the old and abandoned paper mill Menasha. It operated in the area in the 1970s and '80s. Zack stated in a previous interview with FOX 17 that paper industry were major pollutants.
"The people that caused it, or the organization, they need to be held accountable," Newland said. "They need to step up to the plate and start talking."
Residents living near dioxin-detected private wells were given bottled water, he said. As for the municipal water in the city and township of Otsego, he said it gets routinely tested for dioxins.
“The last time the municipal water was tested they were non-detect for these dioxins,” Dr. Tooker said.
If anyone is concerned about their own water, he asked that they call the county’s hotline number (269)-686-4546. The line is open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. And if someone should have further questions regarding dioxins, it’s best to call the toxicologist at 1-800-648-6942 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.
“We are taking names and addresses and developing a list of people that are requesting their water be tested,” Dr. Tooker said.
Newland said the health department and MDEQ have been helpful so far. As a kid in Otsego he remembers seeing the mother liquor and sludge ponds in town. So he hopes more wells are tested despite how expensive it can be. Lives are at stake he said.
“Testing cost big money,” he said. “But sometimes it’s not about money. It’s about public safety. Aomebody’s got to draw a line and say 'you know what we is need massive funding.'”