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Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Lingering in the Air

Sometimes it's surprising to see how long it takes to clear lingering tension from the air.

It has been discovered that a parallel principle applies to the literal air surrounding a chemical plant in St. Louis, Muchugan, that had been shut down long ago.

In 1978 the Michigan Chemical (also called Velsicol Chemical) was closed because it posed a threat to the environment. However, despite years of cleanup the air and ecosystems surrounding the Superfund site remain contaminated 36 years later.
  • Environmental Word of the Day - Superfund: A program run by the American government for the long-term cleanup of hazardous waste sites that are dangerous to ecosystems and/or (therefore by default) human health.
The contamination of the atmosphere was measured by testing the concentrations of pollutants in the barks of trees in the area, including chemicals that had been produced by the plant like DDTPBB, and HBB. For comparison, they also tested chemicals that were not produced by the plant and found that within a 6km radius there were still "relatively high levels of HBB, PBBs, and DDTs in the air they [the ones living there] breathe" (Proscia, 2014).

Don't Hold Your Breath

Angela Peverly, the lead author of the study, stated it well: "People can't control what they breathe" (Proscia, 2014). Although the exact potential threat for long-term effects on the health of people in the area has not yet been investigated, we know that it is there.

An article by Amanda Proscia regarding the study published September 20, 2014 in Great Lakes Echo also included a summary of the history behind the plant concluding that after cleanup of a leakage into the Pine River contamination of fish in the river "dramatically dropped, but a 1982 no consumption warning for all species of fish remains in effect" (Proscia, 2014).

Taking into consideration all these things, these lingering chemicals are not safe for humans or other animals, and a lack of a numerical value to measure exactly how harmful it is certainly is not a reason to ignore it. The article mentions the idea of discarding contaminated trees instead of exporting them, but states that "The EPA did not respond to numerous requests for comment" (Proscia, 2014), though on their website they state their involvement (Environmental Protection Agency, 2014). Still, there are other sources that we can pull information from to piece together what all this could mean, and what the takeaway is.

What do the chemicals do to living things?

It is important to remember that as the first law of ecology states, everything is connected to everything else. Even if only one of these elements were effected, it inevitably would affect others in the ecosystem. 


  • Low levels (even 0.1 micrograms/litre) can slow photosynthesis and growth in green algae (Cruising Chemistry, n.d.).
  • DDT has proven to greatly harm birds, especially ones that eat fish, and cause eggshells to thin (Cruising Chemistry, n.d.).
  • High levels can cause reproductive problems in fish (Gilbert, DeCarvalho, 2013).
  • Although  absorbed through skin, it is also toxic to humans (Cruising Chemistry, n.d.) and if ingested it can be stored in fatty organs and contaminate breast milk
  • Carcinogenic, an endocrine disruptor, and can have reproductive and developmental effects (Gilbert, DeCarvalho, 2013).
    • Endocrine disruptor: A chemical that messes up the hormone system.
    • Carcinogenic: Cancer-causing
*much was learned about the harmful effects of PBB when mislabeling/mismanagement of chemicals at a chemical plant in Michigan during the 70s (we can only guess which one) caused contamination of this flame-retardant in feed for farm animals.
  • PBB proved to cause skin disorders, effects on the nervous system, liver, kidney, thyroid glands, and immune systems in animals tested with PBB, and death of given high amounts. 
    • The thyroid is a major organ in the endocrine system.
  • CarcinogenicAnimals fed PBB in developed cancer
  • Accumulates in the body, and effects can worsen in the long-term (ATSDR, 2011)
(a type of PBB)
  • An endocrine disruptor
  • Possible carcinogen
  • "lipophilic and able to bioconcentrate" (POPs Toolkitm n.d.)... meaning it can be stored and accumulate in fat, and the concentration can be greater in the organism than the contaminated environment.

Now What?

As of July 2014, the EPA and Michigan Department of Environmental Management are continuing the cleanup in the nearby residential areas, cleanup design work at the actual former site, and replacement of municipal drinking water.

Still, a question worth asking is, 'Who pays for pollution?' 

...the cleanup? Taxpayers/people.
...the research? Universities/students/people.
...the pollution? Everyone.

When we make choices that are better or worse for the environment, it comes back to us. The the dirt and the atmosphere and the river are not the ones that feel unwell when they are polluted.

An even better question to ask 'is what can we do about it?'

Note, the mislabeling of chemicals was an accident. The contamination is not evidence that mismanagement is motivated by an intent to harm, but how easily it can happen, and about how important it is to be aware.

Despite having a limited reach, here is something we can do:
  • Keep aware. Look into where your products are coming from, and avoid ones containing toxic chemicals or emit toxins in their production.
This will help protect people from exposure to these dangerous chemicals through the products they buy and ecosystems overall if the consumer demand for such products goes down. It is not fair for anyone to be exposed to toxic chemicals in air or water; it is not something that an individual can simply choose not to do, but our power lies in the choices we do have every day.

Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. (n.d.). Public Health Statement for Polybrominated Biphenyls (PBBs). Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Retrieved October 1, 2014, from

Cruising Chemistry. (n.d.). Effects of DDT. Cruising Chemistry. Retrieved September 30, 2014, from

Environmental Protection Agency. (n.d.). Superfund. EPA. Retrieved September 28, 2014, from

Environmental Protection Agency. (2014, July 18). Velsicol Chemical Corp. (Michigan) - Region 5 Cleanup. EPA. Retrieved October 1, 2014, from

Gilbert, S. G., & DeCarvalho, J. P. (n.d.). DDT. Toxipedia. Retrieved September 30, 2014, from

POPs Toolkit. (n.d.). Hexabromobiphenyl (HBB). Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) Toolkit. Retrieved October 1, 2014, from 

Peverly, A. A., Salamova, A., & Hites, R. A. (2014, September 11). Air is Still Contaminated 40 Years after the Michigan Chemical Plant Disaster in St. Louis, Michigan. ACS Publications. Retrieved October 1, 2014, from

Proscia, A. (2014, September 30). Air near chemical plant remains polluted long after it closed. Great Lakes Echo. Retrieved October 1, 2014, from

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