Sturgis — Daniel Arroyo has lived in this southwest Michigan town for nearly 20 years, unaware his family has been near some of the country’s most polluted land until toxic fumes forced state officials in 2016 to evacuate their house.
The 67-year-old factory worker’s family lives less than a football field away from a pump that extracts and cleans a toxic metalworking chemical from a groundwater plume. It is a Superfund site, where the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is helping with cleanup because of excessive pollution.
Air inside the Arroyo family home tested for unsafe levels of trichloroethylene, or TCE vapors, detected after a five-year federally required Superfund review recommended the state do the test.
The family stayed in a nearby hotel for about a month as workers installed a machine to clean TCE from the indoor air, said Tanya Arroyo, Daniel Arroyo’s teenage daughter. The compound was used in metal degreasing agents but is known to cause neurological damage and potentially cancer in high enough doses.
Workers have returned in recent weeks to make sure it’s still OK to breathe, but the Arroyos remain skeptical.
“We’re not sure if there’s still air in the house that could be bad for us,” Tanya said. “If we get sick, we don’t know if it’s because of that or not.”
The family is not unique. They were among 276 Michigan residents who were ushered out of or barred from homes, apartments, nonprofit locations and a preschool center in Detroit, Grand Rapids and Sturgis between May 2016 and February 2017 because of potentially cancerous fumes, according to Michigan Department of Environmental Quality documents obtained through a Detroit News open records request.
At least another three people were vacated from one Detroit business in August 2017, the state separately confirmed.
In February 2017, DEQ Director Heidi Grether told state lawmakers that there could be more than 4,200 potential vapor intrusion sites across Michigan posing a “significant public health threat.”
Across the state, health and environmental regulators are playing catch-up with industrial chemicals that remain in the ground or water long after they were first introduced. Solvents such as TCE, the compound that polluted the air inside of the Arroyos’ home, can evaporate and drift into nearby buildings.
The temporary abandonment of homes and properties for what is called “vapor intrusion” can come as a shock to owners and tenants, who often have no idea they resided or worked near potentially dangerous pollution sites.
The Detroit News requested the state records after a DEQ official said “several” people were relocated from the Detroit preschool. State documents showed the actual number was 224, representing the largest removal of people in Michigan.
Thirty-five people were evacuated from five buildings in Grand Rapids. Seventeen people were escorted out of three homes in Sturgis, but the two other home owners declined interviews with The News.
The Detroit preschool center is closed by a local health department order until further notice.
The state has a list of 3,005 vapor intrusion sites across Michigan with Metro Detroit making up more than 40 percent of the listed locations. Detroit alone contains 362 locations where vapor intrusion might pose a problem, or 12 percent of the DEQ’s listed sites.
The other 1,200-plus sites are an extrapolation of other unspecified potential sites among an estimated 6,300 underground storage tanks that have leaked or are leaking.
State environmental officials said they are fighting toxic vapors without enough staff or funding. The department hired another three people in 2017 and paid for equipment, lab analysis and other expenses related to investigation with the $2.6 million it received from the Legislature to fight vapor intrusion, which includes $1 million in supplemental funding.
The overwhelming number of locations means state regulators wait to be informed about problems by property owners, complaints from neighbors, environmental assessments required of new construction projects or reviews mandated by the EPA.
“Yes, there are thousands of sites, yet we can’t just snap our fingers and evaluate those thousands of sites,” said Michael McClellan, deputy director of environment for the DEQ.
It is unlikely the state will ever test all of the more than 4,200 contaminated sites, Grether said.
Vapor intrusion is a small portion of all of Michigan’s environmental problems, which includes the emerging threat of PFAS contamination, Gov. Rick Snyder said Wednesday.
“You can’t do it all overnight,” Snyder said at a press conference about his fiscal year 2019 budget plan. The state is addressing “the most difficult and the most challenging situations first” before working on “a systematic way to take it one after another,” he said.
It worries some lawmakers, although most have not made state aid for vapor cleanup a priority.
“I am very concerned that we have funding,” said Rep. David LaGrand, D-Grand Rapids.
EPA prompts state action
New EPA guidelines in 2015 prompted state regulators to recognize vapor intrusion as a larger threat to human health than previously thought. The federal agency did not previously include vapor intrusion testing in its reviews, but new 2015 guidelines prompted a greater focus on the problem.
Environmental regulators didn’t realize before that TCE or other solvent vapors can be harmful at levels once presumed safe, said Kathy Shirey, acting director of the state DEQ’s Remediation and Redevelopment Division.
In residential indoor air samples, the state may require remediation if TCE levels exceed 2 micrograms per cubic meter. The state recognizes levels that exceed 67 micrograms per cubic meter as unsafe in residential soil vapor samples.
Air samples of TCE at the Vistas Nuevas Head Start in Detroit tested as high as 44 times above the state action level, while the soil results were more than 8,000 times higher, according to the DEQ.
The threshold for tetrachloroethylene, or perc, is 41 micrograms per cubic meter for indoor air samples in both residential and nonresidential buildings. The standard for residential soil vapor samples is 1,400 micrograms per cubic meter and 2,700 micrograms per cubic meter for nonresidential samples.
One gram is equivalent to 1 million micrograms. For comparison, a teaspoon of sugar is equivalent to about 4 grams, or 4 million micrograms.
Aside from an increased cancer risk and neurological damage, studies have shown a link between TCE exposure and chronic respiratory diseases, although it’s often impossible to know for sure how much damage the solvent does in particular cases, health experts said.
The Detroit Health Department said a 24-hour air sample found concentrations of toxic vapors usually were lower in the child care location, but did not say by how much. The department also did not return subsequent emails or calls from The News.
The department said it notified all people who “may have spent time in the building of the potential risk” and referred them to their primary care physicians.
“To date the health department is not aware of any specific health effects directly related to the trichloroethylene on this property,” the Detroit agency said.
State health and environmental officials said the risk is a cause for caution, not panic. There’s not enough data to know the full scope of the problem, they said.
“I don’t think people should be alarmed,” said Kory Groetsch, environmental public health director for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. “Be aware. Be knowledgeable.”
The state is forced to foot the bill for many cleanup efforts because of problems with the original polluters, said David Bandlow, a DEQ environmental analyst in Grand Rapids. Those companies often have folded by the time the vapor problem is detected and can’t be tapped to finance the clean-up, he said.
“That’s a huge problem,” Bandlow said. Often, “there’s really no paper trail left to track down any liability.”
Detroit closure a ‘surprise’
Preschool-age children had been going to the Vistas Nuevas Head Start school in Detroit for more than a decade without a whiff of trouble.
But in late October 2016, 80 kids and 144 adults were barred from the building on the western edge of Corktown because of potentially cancerous fumes wafting from decades-old, metal-working pollution from the former Lincoln Brass Works factory.
“It came as a complete surprise to us that there was an issue,” said Brad Coulter, president and CEO of Matrix Human Services, which ran a Detroit preschool program for disadvantaged children in the building.
There was no prior notice that old pollution might be a health risk to kids and workers, Coulter said.
The building’s owner, Rosa Parks LLC, found high levels of TCE in the indoor air after conducting required environmental tests that weren’t done in 2011 when the company bought it, according to the DEQ. Now the building is closed by a local health department order.
It’s not clear whether anyone who was in the building for long periods of time faces health problems. Matrix Human Services and the Detroit Health Department sent letters to more than 1,000 parents of children who attended the Detroit preschool program to say their kids should be seen by a doctor if they were concerned.
A July study commissioned by Matrix showed the building was safe if it was well-ventilated, so staff could finish moving to a new office location in Detroit.
The city denied an open records request from The News seeking names and contact information of the letter recipients. Head Start students at the Rosa Parks site may have gone to any of the 24 other locations the organization has in Detroit.
In Grand Rapids, evacuees were found to have a higher level of a dry-cleaning solvent in their blood than the general population, but the health risk is uncertain.
Neither the Detroit Health Department nor the state took blood samples of the children or adults exposed to Matrix’s former Corktown site.
Evacuations begin in 2016
The earliest known vapor intrusion evacuation was ordered by the state’s health department in May 2016 in Grand Rapids, where 33 people initially abandoned four buildings, according to DEQ documents and the Kent County Health Department. Two more people were later vacated from a photography studio in June 2016.
The vacated photography studio on Ellsworth Avenue was contaminated by a former solvent retailer and recycler, according to the DEQ and Kent County Health Department. Property on Hall Street, where the Red Project nonprofit dedicated to preventing AIDS was once located, was polluted by an old dry cleaner; another building near Leonard Street NW was marred by a leaky underground storage tank beneath a gas station, the DEQ’s Bandlow said.
Workers at an urban renewal nonprofit called Seeds of Promise, near Hall Street and adjacent to the Red Project, also were among those evacuated.
Blood samples of the evacuees were sent to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and found higher blood levels of perchloroethylene or perc than the general population, said Adam London, administrative health officer for the Kent County Health Department.
Officials shared the results with those who were exposed and referred them to toxicology experts for help understanding them, London said.
He said he could not speculate on whether the exposure led to health problems for the 35 Grand Rapids evacuees. But London said perc, in general, can cause neurological damage and increase the risk for cancer.
“I think that’s a frustration that we have and we share with people who live near historical industrial contamination — that our understanding of exactly what those risks are is still incomplete,” he said. “We don’t really know what the relative risk is, but we know that there is a danger involved.”
Spillover in Sturgis
In Sturgis, the pollution problems were known to government agencies and companies, but not all nearby residents. The EPA put it on its National Priorities List in 1984.
“People may be exposed to contaminants through inhalation of volatile contaminants,” noted a 1993 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services report, which recommended air sampling near the underground plume.
But that didn’t happen until 23 years later, when the state’s Health and Human Services Department evacuated three homes in the small southwest Michigan city between October 2016 and February 2017.
Seventeen people were put up in hotels by Newell Brands Inc. — which bought the former Kirsch Co. manufacturing operation blamed for legacy pollution in the area from Cooper Industries in 1997 — while the indoor air was cleaned up, according to the DEQ.
State Rep. Aaron Miller, R-Sturgis, said state officials did not inform him about the evacuations.
“That itself speaks to the fact that I don’t think it was all that transparent,” Miller said.
The DEQ oversaw Newell Brand’s installation of mitigation systems in another five homes that were not evacuated near the old Kirsch site.
Ten more nearby homes received machines from Newell in September to clean up pollution underneath them before it poses a vapor problem, said Jessica Ferris, a DEQ project manager who oversees the Sturgis Superfund site. A commercial building also installed a mitigation system.
In total, 38 homes in the area were tested for a potential vapor problem. Six home owners did not allow the DEQ access despite repeated attempts and could be in danger, Ferris said.
The situation instills not only health fears but financial anxiety for some affected families.
Daniel Arroyo has lived in his Sturgis house since 1998, five years after emigrating from Guerrero, a Mexican state now marred by drug cartel violence. But he and his family were not aware until the past year that they lived near a noxious well field.
“If they would have known before that it was contaminated, they wouldn’t have bought the house,” Tanya Arroyo said. “(My father’s) concern right now is if he tries to sell it, nobody’s gonna want to buy it because it’s contaminated.”
Michigan vapor standards
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency guidelines in 2015 prompted state regulators to toughen certain vapor pollutant standards so there is clean-up at levels once considered safe.
Indoor air: When trichloroethylene vapors exceed 2 micrograms per cubic meter.
Residential soil: When vapors surpass 67 micrograms per cubic meter.
Indoor air: When tetrachloroethylene is higher than 41 micrograms per cubic meter.
Residential soil: 1,400 micrograms per cubic meter.
Nonresidential soil: 2,700 micrograms per cubic meter.
Note: One gram is equivalent to 1 million micrograms.
Source: Michigan Department of Environmental Quality