How did an area that prides itself on being environmentally-progressive find itself sitting on top of one of the most extensive dioxane contaminations in the world? That’s one of the many questions explored in WEMU’s "Green Room" series on the topic, and this website is a tool to complement the series. It provides an outline for quick overview, and transcripts in sequence for the full story. Click on segments of interest to be taken to the archived audio at WEMU.org.
David Fair (DF): From 1966 to 1986, Gelman Sciences made medical filters using a cancer-causing chemical which has contaminated some of the Ann Arbor area’s groundwater. When and where was the 1,4-dioxane pollution first discovered? In this 11th segment of our ongoing Green Room series, Barbara Lucas visits “ground zero” with the man who discovered the contamination thirty-two years ago.
Car starting, car door closing.
Barbara Lucas (BL):I’m with Dan Bicknell, environmental consultant and president of Global Environment Alliance.We’re near Wagner Road, just west of the former Gelman Sciences, now Pall Corporation.
Dan Bicknell:It’s been a while since I’ve been out here.
Getting out of car.
BL:I follow Bicknell through a maze of trails through University of Michigan’s Saginaw Woods.
Sounds of hiking and bird songs.
Bicknell: Unless we needed to go the other way on this gravel trail…
BL:I feel like we’re in the middle of nowhere.Finally, our destination.
Bicknell: That’s the University of Michigan Third Sister Lake.A beautiful lake.When we were kids we used to sneak in and swim out here.
BL:Where were you when you saw the drain?
Bicknell:When I was here with some friends we were walking around the lake and I knew it was supposed to be a springfed lake and there was supposed to be no discharges coming into it.But around this area I saw that there was this stream coming from the Gelman property, into Third Sister Lake.And I knew that that wasn’t right.
BL: Later, driving by Gelman Sciences, he saw acres and acres of spray irrigation towers.They were intended to neutralize dioxane in wastewater through uptake in the turfgrass.But due to a slope…
Bicknell:…all of the water really just ran off into streams into this creek.
BL: So he went back to the creek, collected a water sample, and took it to a lab.They found it contained 1,4-dioxane.
BL: You were how old? Bicknell:I was a grad student at the University of Michigan in 1984 when I found this problem out and wrote this small report that was later submitted to the county and the state.
BL: Bicknell says the report wasn’t warmly welcomed by the local paper or the state.
Bicknell:The DEQ said that my data, ‘wasn’t worth a toot,’ was a quote that they had in the papers.
BL:But he persevered.Report in hand, he accompanied the state to a meeting at the Gelman plant.He says it was then that they discovered an illegal drain under the parking lot asphalt, discharging dioxane-laden wastewater to the creek.
BL:How did you feel about all this?
Bicknell:Well, I thought it was pretty outrageous that Gelman was violating permits, and having illegal discharges without permits, and it was contaminating a pristine lake. At that time I didn’t understand that it had all these lagoons that were allowing dioxane to get into the groundwater.
BL: But he knew enough to be concerned.When there was no action from the authorities, he convinced some of the neighbors to petition for well water testing.
Bicknell:When they came back with like 100,000 ppb in a drinking water well, and as you know the EPA advisory is 3.5, you knew that there was severe damage.And that’s when it cascaded and all the other homes around here were sampled and put on public water.
BL: He said he had no clue of the magnitude of the problem.
Bicknell:I didn’t realize it would grow to be four miles long and a mile wide, wiping out residential wells and going into the city, potentially harming people through vapor intrusion!
BL: It took nearly two years before Gelman quit discharging dioxane to the environment.By then, Bicknell had left Michigan for a job with the US EPA.Now back in the area, he’s outraged the plume has been allowed to expand.
David Fair: This is 89.1 WEMU and I’m David Fair and we invite you in ‘The Green Room’ as our series on the Ann Arbor dioxane plume continues. Last week we spoke with Dan Bicknell, who told us how he discovered the water contamination emanating from the Gelman Sciences facility on Wagner Road in Scio Township. That was 1984 when he was a graduate student at the University of Michigan. Bicknell then left the area for a career dedicated to the environment. Now, he lives on the east side of the state, but as WEMU’s Barbara Lucas reports, he’s back to working for action and solutions in Ann Arbor.
Barbara Lucas (BL):At first when Dan Bicknell discovered the dioxane contamination, his findings were doubted—he was, after all, only a college student.Now, he’s had 32 years of work in the field.
Dan Bicknell:I was the US EPA environmental risk assessor for Region V as well the General Motors environmental risk assessor for about 10 years.
BL:Bicknell is not happy that the goal for the Ann Arbor plume is to contain it, rather than clean it up.Here’s Bob Wagner of the DEQ at a Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners meeting:
Bob Wagner:Know that “cleanup” suggests to the public that it's going to get cleaned up. Spilled milk, it gets wiped up, it’s cleaned up.
BL:But Wagner says that since 1995, Michigan law allows a polluter to leave pollution in place, and not clean it up, so long people aren’t exposed to harmful levels.
Wagner:And that is what current law provides for.
BL:And that’s what the court ruled in the Gelman case.But the DEQ has proposed that the state lower the amount of dioxane that is legally-permissible for contact.I ask Mitch Adelman of the DEQ if we’ll see major change once the more protective criteria is approved.
Adelman:Well, I guess that depends on your definition of change.
BL:He asks if more monitoring wells is what I have in mind.
BL:No, I’m talking about actually extracting the dioxane and getting rid of it, to a lower level.Really aggressively trying to clean up the plume.
Adelman: I guess I’m not going to speculate on what the time frame is for that outcome.I don’t know if that is a realistic outcome, to tell you the truth.
BL:Bicknell won’t accept a lesser outcome, and is sounding the call.Last spring he alerted the Pate family off Wagner Road that their well’s double-digit dioxane levels might indeed be a health issue.He’s concerned about multiple pathways of exposure—not just drinking and bathing.
Bicknell:Unfortunately with the Pate family, where they had to have a vaporizer, they used the vaporizer in the baby’s room because they were having trouble breathing.Well, the dioxane vapors went into the air and that was another pathway to the child.
BL:Vapor intrusion in basements is another exposure route he’s concerned about.
Bicknell:It's very similar to radon.You know how radon gets built up in basements because basements have cracks and stuff like that.It’s the same sort of thing.But in this case you’ve got the groundwater in near contact, or in contact, with the basement.The fumes, the volatilization, go into the building and that’s a concern.As you know, the State’s proposed rule is 29 ppb and it's highly likely that those levels will be exceeded as the dioxane plume moves through the city of Ann Arbor.
BL: Although doubts exist it’s warranted,Bicknell is certain Ann Arbor needs federal help.He’s urging the city and county to apply to have the Gelman plume named to the EPA’s “National Priorities List” of hazardous waste sites.What would that entail?
Bicknell: If we sign a petition and send it into US EPA, the process is that they look at the information that exists today, and create a ‘Hazardous Ranking Score.’
BL:He feels sure it would rank high.
Bicknell: Then there's a 30-day public comment period where the public will say ‘Yes, we do' or 'No, we don’t want this to be a federal Superfund site.’
BL:If it passes that test, after about three months….
Bicknell: They will prepare an administrative order that would be sent over to Gelman Pall that will say ‘You need to do these following things.’
BL:If Gelman refuses to follow the order, Bicknell is confident the US EPA will do the work for them, and sue for compensation.He acknowledges “going Superfund” won’t achieve miracles, but feels something has got to change.
David Fair: This is 89-1 WEMU, and I’m David Fair. Officials in Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County continue to struggle with how best to deal with a slowly spreading groundwater plume of 1,4-dioxane. A random sampling by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found traces of the chemical in 12% of tested public water systems. At what levels does dioxane become harmful to humans? There is a lack of research data that would help accurately answer this crucial question. In this 13th installment of WEMU’s “The Green Room” series on the Ann Arbor area’s 1, 4 dioxane plume, Barbara Lucas explores whether there may be a wealth of data right under our noses.
Barbara Lucas (BL):I’m with Dan Bicknell, who’s just shown me where, in 1984, he first discovered dioxane escaping from Gelman Sciences into a nearby lake.Now we’re looking at a pipe gushing water into a creek.
Dan Bicknell:This is where the groundwater treatment system discharges the contaminated effluent that then runs into Honey Creek, and makes it’s way around eventually to the Huron River.
BL: There is dioxane in it, but at least it’s legal. Bicknell says back in 1984, the releases were illegal, because the state didn’t know dioxane was leaving the Gelman property.
Bicknell:The actual complaint that was written by the state said ‘You never told anybody this!’
BL: I’d heard that Gelman’s dioxane releases were legal.
Bicknell:If you look at the permits, dioxane isn’t listed there.And therefore the state did not know!
BL:Later, he sends me the documentation to verify.While I’m looking through it, something else catches my eye:Drinking water wells had parts per billion dioxane concentrations in the hundreds of thousands.Wow, considering the EPA advisory level is only 3.5!Over 50 contaminated drinking water wells: “647 ppb, 7,300 ppb, 180,000 ppb.” Bicknell says levels were so high, some people showered at Weber’s Inn until they got on city water.Has anyone followed up with these folks to see how they’re doing now? I check with the county and the DEQ, and the answer is no.
BL: I catch up to University of Michigan toxicologist Dr. Rita Loch-Caruso, at the Ann Arbor Green Fair.
Rita Loch-Caruso: That was really a revelation to me and it’s really a major concern.I don’t think we’re going to find many places where people were exposed to that high of a concentration.
BL:She says it would be very helpful to find out if they’ve had increased health issues compared to the general population.Current calculations of risk of dying from cancer due to dioxane rely on rat studies.
Loch-Caruso:And for the reproductive and developmental toxicity, there is really just almost an absence of information.I have found one rat study, and that’s just not enough.
BL:It’s been three decades, so enough time has gone by for health issues to appear.She says what we learn here, can be crucial information elsewhere as well.
Loch-Caruso: What we are having is a situation where it’s becoming increasingly a concern that the general population may be drinking water that is contaminated with 1,4-dioxane.
BL:Loch-Caruso says the fact that Ann Arbor’s plume is a single chemical makes it invaluable for study purposes.
Loch-Caruso: Because most of the time people are exposed to 1,4-dioxane as part of a solvent mixture.And what we have going on in Washtenaw County right now is really just 1,4-dioxane in our groundwater.
BL: For instance, at homes near the KL Avenue Landfill Superfund Site in Kalamazoo, drinking wells have a mixture of pollutants.I spoke with Nancy Miller, whose parents moved there in 1955.It’s been ten years since they first discovered the dioxane in their well.Although it registers 39 ppb, they don’t want to switch to city water.
Nancy Miller:You know, as long it is under the old 85 ppb, I want to keep my well! We’ve had this… My mother died in her 99th year, and it didn’t affect her.
BL: Who knows, it’s always possible we’ll find those folks who’ve had high exposures have not fared worse than the general population.
Loch-Caruso: It would be wonderful.I mean wouldn’t that be the preferred answer?
BL: Dr. Loch-Caruso hopes to form a team to track them down and see.We won’t know, until we look.
David Fair: With dioxane increasingly being found in groundwater and municipal waters across the nation, what is a safe level? Although it’s a suspected human carcinogen, it’s not yet regulated by the federal government. States are free to develop their own standards, which are all over the map. With so much uncertainty over what’s safe, is bottled water the answer? Here’s Barbara Lucas, with the 14th in WEMU’s Green Room series on 1,4-dioxane.
Phone dialing.“Thank-you for calling the International Bottled Water Association.”
Barbara Lucas (BL): According to the International Bottled Water Association, 51% of bottled water is purified tap water: city water. This has me wondering, because in 2014 the EPA randomly sampled public water systems and found 7% of them had dioxane above the .35 parts per billion reference concentration.So is bottled water tested for dioxane?
Chris Hogan:No, it is not specifically, because that is not a regulatory requirement by the Food and Drug Administration.
BL:That’s Chris Hogan, of the International Bottled Water Association.
BL:What kind of assurance can we give people, documentation-wise, that there is not dioxane in the water?
Hogan:Like I said, because it’s not regulated by FDA at the moment, so bottled water is not tested for it, specifically.
BL:OK, so if traces could potentially be in bottled water, how much is safe to drink?Some states allow only very low levels of dioxane, such as the .4 ppb limit in New Jersey.
Phone ringing.Recording:“You have reached Mt. Olive Township municipal offices.”
BL:I’m intrigued, because testing has shown at least eight city water systems in Michigan have dioxane levels higher than what’s allowed in New Jersey.Up to six times higher, in fact.
Trevor Weigle:Good afternoon, Trevor speaking.
BL:Trevor Weigle is Township Health Officer, near a Superfund site where an old landfill is leaching dioxane.He says New Jersey recently lowered their dioxane standard from 3 ppb to .4.
Weigle: So when that happened they immediately notified all the affected properties and then offered all of those affected properties water, drinking water, so they all got bottled water.
BL:Those wells have tested at low levels of dioxane, while most bottled water isn’t tested for it at all.So conceivably the bottled water provided to them could contain more dioxane than the water it’s replacing?
“Welcome to Pepsi-Cola Consumer Relations.”Pepsi-Cola jingle.
BL:I call the major bottled water companies: Dasani, Nestle, Aquafina. None say they test for dioxane.
“Please hold for the next available representative.”
BL:Finally, there is one company I call that says ‘yes.’Ann Arbor’s Arbor Springs Water Company: They’ve tested for dioxane—twice, at a sensitivity of 1 ppb—and the results were negative.Arbor Springs sells both artesian groundwater, and purified Ann Arbor city water.
Steps in metal stairwell.
BL: The city of Ann Arbor regularly tests its water for dioxane—down to .07 ppb—and it’s consistently negative.
Brian Steglitz:So this is the control room…
BL:I’m at the water treatment plant on Sunset Drive, where Brian Steglitz is manager.
Steglitz:So what we are walking through right now, this is our filter gallery.
BL:He says part of their plant is nearly 80 years old, and badly needs replacing.He says it’s crucial that people know Ann Arbor city water is safe.
Steglitz:Because if people are not willing to drink the water and they are drinking bottled water and just using it for irrigation, then they are not going to be willing to support the reinvestment that we need.
BL:For those looking to avoid dioxane, it’s notable that Ann Arbor city water tests regularly to assure it does not contain 1,4-dioxane, because that’s more than most bottled water companies can say.
David Fair: People in Washtenaw County are all too familiar with 1,4-dioxane. It is a chemical that has contaminated a spreading portion of the Ann Arbor area's groundwater. The contaminant emanates from the old Gelman Sciences facility on Wagner Road in Scio Township. It is not, however, the only place you will encounter what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency calls a probable human carcinogen. While perhaps of lesser concern, WEMU's Barbara Lucas has found dioxane exists in a plethora of other everyday items. That's the focus in our latest presentation of 'The Green Room.'
Sound of a child taking a bath.
BL:In 2009, tests of 48 top-selling children’s products found 67% contained 1,4-dioxane—at levels up to 35,000 parts per billion, including bubble baths and best selling baby shampoos—which can be absorbed through the skin, and inhaled in water vapor.
Grocery store checkout sounds.
BL:Americans bought about 50 billion plastic water bottles last year, most of them made from PET plastic.What is a byproduct of PET production?You guessed it!Studies have found dioxane at levels of 100,000 ppb in the wastewater of PET manufacturing plants.
Hum of reverse osmosis system.
BL:That’s the sound of an ordinary household reverse osmosis filter system. Unfortunately, such a filter cannot take dioxane out of water.But did you know there’s a chance that when first installed, it might have actually added dioxane to drinking water?Dioxane is used in manufacturing cellulose filters, and sometimes there are traces of residual dioxane left on the filters.That’s why instructions call for flushing them out with water after first installing them.
Ecology Center lab tech at work.
Jeff Gearhart:Nate is working on car seat samples, so we are analyzing children's’ car seats for hazardous flame retardants.
BL:I’m at the Ecology Center in downtown Ann Arbor, where tests are done on consumer products to detect toxic substances.Jeff Gearhart is research director.They don’t test for dioxane here, but Gearhart has been following the dioxane situation in Ann Arbor since doing his thesis on it nearly three decades ago.
Gearhart:Cellulose acetate filter production…
BL:We’re looking through a huge book chock full of sources of dioxane.
Gearhart:Printing inks, paints, adhesives, flame retardant productions, polymer production, aircraft deicing fluid, cleaning fluids.Ranges of personal care products:detergents, shampoos.And even pesticides.
BL:The list goes on. Pharmaceuticals, plastics, food.And because so much ends up in landfills, landfill leachate is a common source of dioxane.
Gearhart:It’s ubiquitous throughout chemistry, really.
BL:Gearhart tells me about Green Chemistry.
Gearhart:It's really going back to the chemist and saying let’s figure out how can actually do chemistry that’s highly efficient, that’s green, that doesn’t bring these other chemicals along for the ride.
BL:He says it’s a preventable situation.
Gearhart:We need to take a step back and look at product design and chemistry design, and understanding that these are consumable products that end up going someplace. Dioxane is a great example of some of these problems.
BL:He says it’s also a failure of priorities.
Gearhart:People call them environmental disasters, like Flint, but really they are predictable outcome of a systematic disinvestment in environmental and health regulations, and environmental and health infrastructure.
BL:There’s no law regulating dioxane in our food, soaps, or other consumable products. Gearhart says it’s not an intentional ingredient, it’s left over from manufacturing processes—a contaminant.
Gearhart:Consumers are always in a difficult spot. That’s one of the reasons we continue to push for full ingredient disclosure, including contaminants, that may be in products.
BL:Until then, there’s the internet.Unfortunately, when I google products containing 1,4-dioxane, I find my favorite laundry detergent, my favorite dish soap, and my favorite shampoo.