These are the ‘toxic hot spots’ where Michiganders may face cancer-causing air pollution

ProPublica investigation cites 7 areas of concern in the state

By: - December 13, 2021 7:40 am

Grand Rapids | Getty Images

Andrew Hammond, 26, has spent his whole life in Grand Rapids — which may have exposed him to an excessive lifetime cancer risk from industrial sources, according to a new ProPublica investigation. 

Grand Rapids had the highest cause for concern in the state for lifetime cancer risk from industrial sources. Some residents who lived near Viant Medical Inc. and Viant Sterilization Services, which sterilized medical devices near both John Ball Zoo and the Meijer Gardens until closing in 2019, faced an excessive risk 11 times higher than what the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) deems acceptable. Residents in Grand Rapids located near Benteler Automotive Hagen Facility also faced a risk 1.1 times higher than the EPA’s acceptable risk amount. 

“Obviously it’s concerning,” Hammond told the Advance. “The toughest part is having lived my whole life there growing up [and] you just had no idea. So, to learn about it now, it just begs the question of what is the impact on my health and that of my family for the last 20-plus years that I lived in Grand Rapids?”

Viant and Benteler did not return a request for comment.

The recent ProPublica investigation found that people living in seven areas in Michigan could be exposed to high levels of cancer risk that the EPA labels as unacceptable. 

The investigation displays the results in a map identifying “toxic hot spots” where residents could be exposed to dangerously high levels of cancer-causing air pollution. The map is a result of the five years ProPublica spent analyzing EPA modeling. ProPublica pinpoints general areas where there is cause for concern, but does not analyze specific sites and does not tie specific cases of cancer to specific industrial facility emissions. 

While the EPA said in a statement to the Advance that it could not comment directly on ProPublica’s investigation, Tim Carroll, EPA’s deputy press secretary said that under President Biden the EPA is “improving its approach for sharing air toxics data faster and more regularly with the public.”

“The EPA has reinvigorated its commitment to protect public health from toxic air emissions from industrial facilities,” Carroll said. “Especially in communities that have already suffered disproportionately from air pollution and other environmental burdens for far too long.”

Jill Greenberg, Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) spokesperson, said the department takes “very seriously our role in protecting the air quality for Michigan’s residents and the sake of the environment.”

Justin Colacino, a University of Michigan associate professor who is currently beginning a $13 million research project through the university on cancer risk from environmental exposures, said the results of the ProPublica investigation were “undoubtedly concerning,” but fit the mold for what has previously been known about industrial exposures and cancer risk in Michigan. 

“I was very impressed with their work,” Colacino said. “Overall, just being able to visualize these potential hotspots related to the emission of known carcinogens across different communities in Michigan is very striking.” 

Menominee in the Upper Peninsula had the second-highest risk behind Grand Rapids, with one in 1,000 people there having an excess lifetime risk of cancer from industrial pollutants. Menominee was 9.9 times above the EPA’s acceptable risk limit in areas surrounding L.E. Jones Co. LLC, a valve seat manufacturer. 

In a statement to the Advance, L.E. Jones Co. CEO David Doll, lambasted the investigation, saying ProPublica used a “crude computer modeling tool and general assumptions” and has subsequently amplified “exaggerated and inaccurate risk [assessments].” He said the company uses chromium metal, and divalent and trivalent chrome compounds, but does not use hexavalent chromium — a cancer-causing form of chromium.

“It is disappointing and concerning that ProPublica would engage in this misleading effort to spread needless alarm in our community,” Doll said. 

Midland had the third-highest cause for concern, with residents facing cancer levels 8.5 times above the EPA’s acceptable risk. This means one in 1,200 people has an excess lifetime cancer risk due to the industrial sources in the area. 

The area of high risk in Midland surrounds the Dow Chemical Co. and the Dow Corning Corp.’s Midland Plant, both of which are a part of Dow, a giant chemical company creating household supplies. Dow did not return a request for comment.

The fourth-highest risk was in Ypsilanti, where areas surrounding the Electronics for Imaging Inc. had 3.9 times the risk for cancer above the EPA’s acceptable risk. 

In Muskegon, those near the Cannon Muskegon Corporation, an alloy manufacturing company, also faced a risk 3.1 times higher than the EPA’s acceptable risk. Neither Electronics for Imaging nor Cannon Muskegon returned a request for comment.

The sixth-highest was in Wyandotte in the Downriver area, where people faced a risk 1.7 times above the EPA’s acceptable level in the surrounding area of BASF Corp. 

In Marshall, those living around the Tenneco Automotive Operating Co. Inc., an auto parts manufacturer, faced a risk 1.1 times higher than what is acceptable by the EPA. BASF Corp. and Tenneco Automotive Operating Co. did not return a request for comment.

Colacino did pinpoint some areas that the data did not cover since the data was “grouped into bins.” He said the data could not track exact concentrations of what was being emitted over time and did not track other pollution exposures coming from air and water. He also said the data could not represent individual personal behaviors that could have increased a person’s exposure to cancer. 

Colacino also said the data plotted by ProPublica’s investigation highlights that communities of color and populations with lower socioeconomic statuses often tend to have the excess lifetime risk for cancer due to industrial sources. 

“There can be very serious impacts on the communities that are situated around here,” Colacino said. “It ends up being a health inequity issue… We see communities of color, lower socioeconomic status communities are located near these industrial emissions where we see a disproportionate burden of exposure to environmental contaminants that we think might be linked to diseases like cancer.”

Colacino’s $13 million research project he is working on alongside other top public health researchers at the University of Michigan will help to further unearth inequities when it comes to environmental exposures and increased cancer risk.  

In a press release announcing the project in October, it was noted that in the area around Saginaw, Bay City, and Midland, where there are large Black and Hispanic populations, the state has also seen the most pollution as a result of industrial facilities. 

In 2018, the EPA released a report that found that Black communities are exposed to extremely high levels of pollution and are three times as likely to die from air pollution than those who are white. 

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According to another report released by the Princeton Student Climate Initiative in 2020, 68% of Black people live within a 30-mile radius of a coal-fired plant, compared to 56% of white people. This is despite the fact that Black people make up 13% of the U.S. population. 

Tim Minotas, the Sierra Club of Michigan’s legislative and political coordinator, spoke to the Advance about how “it’s really not a coincidence” that communities of color and lower-income communities have been historically situated near areas of high air pollution from industries because of government policies. 

“Our findings have always seen there’s decades of evidence demonstrating that pollution is segregated,” Minotas said. “And it’s always our lower income, rural areas facing the biggest brunts and it’s our communities of color that are bearing the biggest brunt of our pollution from industries.”

Colacino added that the way to address the health inequities created from industrial pollution is for the government to take action and implement policies to better protect communities from environmental hazards that are causing excessive risks to cancer. 

“It’s not fair that these like waste sites and these industrial sites are being disproportionately located in their communities,” Colacino said. “If we’re going to make changes here, it has to be on the policy level.”

Hammond added that although he does not know what the best solution would be to the issue, that “there’s a handful of ways” action could be taken on the issue. He urged that action must take place in order to ensure the health of Grand Rapids residents and communities across Michigan. 

“[It’s] a basic human right to be able to live where you are with your family and not be at risk of known carcinogens,” Hammond said. “I think it’s not fair to have these negative externalities pushed on the population. How you go about resolving that is an immense challenge … in terms of remediation going forward. But then what about all the damage that’s been caused today?”

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Julia Forrest
Julia Forrest

Julia Forrest is a contributor to the Michigan Advance. She has been covering Michigan and national politics for two years at the Michigan Daily and OpenSecrets. She studies public policy at the University of Michigan.