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This week, the Environment Report is taking an in-depth look at the connections between cancer and the environment.When somebody gets cancer, one of the first questions is usually "why?"Does this kind of cancer run in my family?Was it something in the water, or in the air around me?Did I get exposed to something?What would you do, or where would you go to answer these questions? We'll explore how much we really know about the connections between cancer and the chemicals in our environment.We'll also meet both regular people and scientists trying to figure out if certain towns around Michigan are struggling with more cancer cases than other places because of current or past pollution.You'll hear about whether or not turning to the courts makes sense when it seems a company might to be blame for putting people at risk of cancer or other illnesses.Finally, we'll look at where we go from here. What do researchers know, and where are they looking next?

Birds are dying in central Michigan from decades-old DDT pollution

All this week we're bringing you stories about the chemical company responsible for the PBB tragedy in Michigan. Michigan Chemical accidentally contaminated the state’s food supply in the 1970s, but the legacy of that company is still very much with us today.

Michigan Chemical – which later became Velsicol Chemical – made more than just PBB, and it left these toxic chemicals behind in St. Louis, Michigan.

One woman insists something is wrong with the birds

Teri Kniffen and her family moved to St. Louis in 1994. She had heard about Velsicol Chemical and the PBB tragedy in Michigan, but when they bought their house, they didn't realize they were moving right next to where the old plant site was buried.

In 2001, she started noticing dying robins in her yard.  

“When I’d go out in the backyard, and get near them, they wouldn’t move," says Kniffen. "They just would stagger around the yard, and they’d end up dying.”

Kniffen said she would find around 10 to 12 dead birds a year – mostly American robins. She said she tried to get officials from the MDEQ and the EPA to test the birds, but they mostly ignored her. An MDEQ official told her to collect the dead birds in her freezer, but she says by the time they came to collect them four years later, she was told the birds could not be tested. 

So two years ago, Kniffen had the birds tested herself at MSU, and the birds tested positive for acute DDT and DDE poisoning.

Kniffen videotaped the birds as well. Here's what she and her neighbors would see (this video might be disturbing for some viewers):


Velsicol Chemical leaves its mess behind

For more than 40 years until it closed in 1978, Velsicol Chemical made all kinds of chemicals – including DDT. The company is long gone. The story is a familiar one. It was bought out, and then the company that bought it, Fruit of the Loom, went bankrupt.

So the old company ceased to exist, but its chemicals are still here in this small town in the center of the Lower Peninsula.

Air deposition is one way people believe the chemicals spread. People who lived in St. Louis at the time the plant was in operation often describe a white dust that would settle on the neighborhood at times. That could be one way the chemicals from the plant got into the ground. Others tell stories of the company offering free fill dirt to neighbors.  

Birds tell a story of what's underground

Matt Zwiernik is a wildlife toxicologist at Michigan State University. He tested the two birds Kniffen first brought to MSU in 2012. Then in 2013, his team studied the birds and their nests in and around St. Louis.

All the adult birds they collected in a nine-block area around the old chemical plant had also been poisoned.

"These concentrations, from my literature search, are the greatest ever reported in wild birds." - Matt Zwiernik, wildlife toxicologist, MSU.

“These concentrations from my literature search are the greatest ever reported in wild birds,” says Zwiernik. “When they arrive in May and by June they’re dying of convulsions, and they’ve got ten times the concentration in their brain that causes death in laboratory animals, you can assume that DDT caused it.”

More interesting, Zwiernik notes, are their findings on the birds' nests. They monitored 60 nests in the nearby neighborhood, and downstream from the chemical plant.

The team found low hatchling success rates, meaning the robins had a hard time reproducing in these areas.

Zwiernik recently presented his findings at a conference. He said people were shocked that this was happening in 2014.

“I was shocked as well. I’ve been doing this for 15 years now…. Many, many studies over seven years, trying to find subtle differences … and in this one it really just hits you over your head. You don’t need a giant study design to get your answer. You can test your hypothesis in one year with 29 samples. It’s nothing like I’ve seen in my career.”

Cleanup was planned, but bird study helped score funding

Zwiernik’s study was paid for by a community group pushing for more cleanup in St. Louis. The Pine River Superfund Citizen Task Force  gave Zwiernik $15,000 for his study.

The EPA and the state have known about the nasty chemicals in the neighborhood since around 2006. Some areas had been fenced off because the DDT levels were unsafe for people.

And before MSU's bird study, officials had decided that the yards in the nine-block area should be cleaned.

But federal Superfund money is tight. What money there is goes to the worst sites first. News of the dying robins helped build the case that this place needed the money.

Contaminated yards in a nine-block area in St. Louis, Michigan are being dug up. After the soil is removed, new sod is brought in.
Credit Mark Brush / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Contaminated yards in a nine-block area in St. Louis, Michigan are being dug up. After the soil is removed, new sod is brought in.

The EPA is cleaning up the yards now. It will likely spend around $12 million to excavate and replace soil in the affected areas.

Fifty-two  homes had their soil excavated and replaced this year. The EPA hopes to complete another 45 homes next year.

The EPA believes, through its soil testing, that most of the contamination sits in this nine-block area, but it's beginning to test the soil outside of this neighborhood.

Searching for the boundary of pollution in St. Louis

In the meantime, volunteers in the community continue to collect the birds they find. The 2013 study found a couple of robins outside the nine-block area that had elevated levels of DDT. Those birds were collected by a mailman in St. Louis.

Zwiernik doesn't have the funding to continue his study, so the birds that are collected now are tested by the state.

Last July, I went out with Terry Jelenek to collect a dead robin.

Terry Jelenek is one of the volunteers who collects dead robins in St. Louis. The community wants to know whether birds outside the nine-block area they know about are being affected by DDT.
Credit Mark Brush / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Terry Jelenek is one of the volunteers who collects dead robins in St. Louis. The community wants to know whether birds outside the nine-block area they know about are being affected by DDT.

The robin that he was collecting was young, a fledgling. It sat outside the nine-block area, but less than a mile from the old chemical plant.

Jelenek put the bird in a sterilized bottle, and recorded all kinds of data. He and other volunteers were trained by Zwiernik in how to collect the samples.

Then, the bird goes in a freezer so it can later be tested. In 2014, three birds were collected. One inside the nine-block area likely died of neurotoxicity from DDT. One was too decayed to do analysis on, and the one collected in the photo showed signs of DDT exposure, but likely did not die from the chemical.

“This study has been great for St. Louis, cleaning it up," says Jelenek.

The EPA and the state will be here for a long time trying to clean things up, and the robins arriving in the spring could help pinpoint where the problems are.

Tomorrow, we continue our series on the legacy left behind by the Velsicol Chemical Corporation.  We'll hear how the chemicals are affecting the town's water supply. You can find more on our series here.

Mark Brush was the station's Digital Media Director. He succumbed to a year-long battle with glioblastoma, an aggressive brain cancer, in March 2018. He was 49 years old.
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