Survivor investigates cancer cases in Michigan town

Brad Devereaux
Kalamazoo Gazette

Otsego — In the rural area where Mary Zack grew up, she has fond memories of riding bikes and going to bonfires, football games and school dances.

She remembers how the residents of Otsego, a city of about 4,000 people in Allegan County, north of Kalamazoo, were so supportive when she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer at 17.

Nearly two decades after graduating from Otsego High School, Zack said she is now healthy, but she has questions about the area she grew up in.

She can’t believe the number of cancer cases and other serious illnesses reported by area residents, and she wants to find out if they’re tied to something dumped in the environment.

Her investigation has captured the attention of federal and state agencies.

Zack, who went to Michigan State University and later moved to Chicago, where she now works in medical device sales, thought of her cancer as an unfortunate and rare case.

But she started wondering if it could be somehow tied to the Otsego area after her sister also was diagnosed with cancer at age 35. More than a dozen she knew from high school were too.

Representatives from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, Allegan County Department of Health, Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry and the Environmental Protection Agency met with residents March 10 in Otsego.

Zack is working with the agencies and wants to find proof if something in the environment has caused the health problems.

“I believe something’s wrong,” she said. “I just want to hear the words come out of their mouths.”

She is mostly concerned about dioxin, she said, but she’s investigating other possibilities and issues she thinks have not been given the attention deserved.

“I’m going to bring them out because my friends are getting sick and their children are getting sick,” she said.

Michigan DEQ officials from the Remediation and Redevelopment Division and other divisions are reviewing existing files of sites in the area and resident input to determine whether additional investigation would be warranted, said DEQ spokeswoman Melanie Brown.

DEQ file information for the Kalamazoo River Superfund site, the former Rock-Tenn paper mill, the former Menasha paper mill and the former A-1 Landfill is being reviewed and other potential sources also will be evaluated as deemed necessary, she said.

Chris Newland, 53, a former Otsego resident, said he lived near a former paper mill and remembers being a child and playing in and around ponds of “black liquor” about 400 yards from his house. He later learned the material was the byproduct of dissolving the cellulose fibers in wood.

He said he also saw other materials dumped near his house including furniture, car batteries and industrial drums. He wonders if his father’s pancreatic cancer could have been caused by something dumped in the area, and he worries for the health of people in the city and nearby.

“The question is what’s lurking in the ground and what happened to the materials that were stored there?” he said.

The EPA confirmed it is aware of a former Otsego resident “looking into health issues around Otsego.”

“EPA is prepared to provide support to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry and the Michigan Department of Community Health if requested,” the agency said in a statement emailed to MLive.

Zack said one of her first steps was to create an online survey, gathering responses about cancer diagnoses and other health issues from area respondents. As of March 12, she has heard from 415 people and said she had looked at about 200 surveys that include cancer cases and reproductive issues in young adults and some children.

She created the Justice For Otsego Facebook page, where commenters are sharing their own stories and working together to share research and news articles about environmental contamination in the Otsego area.

In the Kalamazoo River that runs through Otsego, former manufacturing processes left polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and it is part of a Kalamazoo area Superfund site listed on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency National Priorities List in 1990.

In December, the site was one of 21 contamination sites nationally selected by the EPA to receive immediate and intense attention, because of its potential for “identifiable actions to protect human health and the environment.”

Zack said she is concerned about other possible dumping of hazardous materials in the area that could be causing health problems.

She wonders if pollutants could have entered residents’ water supply, and is asking people to submit water testing results from the Otsego municipality water testing facility any water testing results from private wells.

The municipal water systems in the city of Otsego and Otsego Township are required to test their supply wells every three years and the most recent results have not detected any PCBs or dioxins, according to the DEQ. The wells are scheduled to be tested again this year.

Otsego City Manager Aaron Mitchell said the city’s water source is an aquifer well below the river depth.

City offices have received some questions about the health concerns, Mitchell said, and the city has been instructed to refer all questions to the DEQ. City officials want to find answers too, he said.

“Until we find something, it’s hard to say this is what we need to do,” Mitchell said.

The DEQ is reviewing information from the meeting and conducting planning and coordination efforts for next steps, said Lynn Sutfin, spokeswoman for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

“DEQ will be reviewing records for previous environmental remediation work in the area. MDHHS is taking the lead in partnership with local public health and our federal partners to work with the community on their health concerns and questions,” she said.

“We will be following up in approximately 30 days.”

The department plans to meet with the Allegan County Health Department to discuss a potential health outcome evaluation, according to Sutfin, and DEQ and EPA are compiling available environmental chemicals data for the area.

The DEQ did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Zack said officials are working to provide statistics about cancer cases by ZIP code. Currently, she said, data only is available for all of Allegan County.

Richard Tooker, Allegan County Health Department medical director, said residents’ concerns are valid, and the department is working with partner agencies to investigate further.

“We’ve known about issues of concern and now the question is are there other concerns and different concerns we need to be thinking about and potentially investigate?” he said.

The PCBs that have been documented in the area have been remediated and are not a likely source of human exposure, Tooker said, but the question is if there are other contaminants and sites of contamination.

“Is there an ongoing possibility of people being in contact with dangerous chemicals and is it continuing to be an issue causing harm?” he said. “That’s what we’ll investigate going forward.”

Zack is excited to see what the agencies come back with.

She counted 17 people from high school in the four years she was there who developed cancer. Some have died. In one yearbook photo of 40 student council members, she said six have had cancer.

“I’m 36 years old. I should not have this many friends die of cancer,” Zack said.