While such stories are not usually widely engaging, you may find the one below an exception, if for no other reason than its bizarre nature. It was brought to mind last week when news came of burst dams that had caused massive flooding in Central Michigan.
It could be days before the full scope of rampaging waters that submerged houses, washed-out roads, and threatened a dangerous toxic site is apparent, authorities warned last week. Some of the floodwaters from heavy rains that overtook two dams retreated, but much remained underwater, including in Midland, the headquarters of Dow Chemical Company. And floodwaters continued to threaten downstream communities — not just with water, but toxic chemicals.
When floodwaters from Hurricane Harvey covered the Houston area, millions of pounds of chemicals likewise were spread through the area.
As you read, think of the irony of the name “hemlock.”
The article was an adaptation of a chapter in a book I wrote, Laying Waste: The Poisoning of America. This wasn’t “tree-hugging, sun-worshiping, moon-dancing” stuff. This was about humans bizarrely and in some cases irreparably affected by chemical wastes. God cares about nature, according to Pope Saint John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis. In fact 2020, was just declared Laudato si’ Year, after an encyclical about just this topic. He certainly cares about humans. A pro-life issue? Here’s the article I wrote forty-one years ago, research that caused a bit of consternation at Dow and provoked a U.S. Senate hearing.
By Michael H. Brown
- The New York Times Magazine:
That something might possibly be askew in the old German farming community of Hemlock, a small Michigan town just southwest of Saginaw Bay, first occurred to Carol Jean Kruger. She lived on one of the area’s largest dairy farms in a region of flatlands known for its cider mills and its bluegrass. “In 1974, things kind of started,” she says. “But it took until 1977 for me to put it together. When we did, we could go back to 1969 and see the problem.”
It was in 1974 that she bought 10 Holstein cows — only to watch, during the next six months, as two of them rapidly lost weight for unknown reasons, and died. Not long afterward, large clusters of calves began to succumb mysteriously. Forty of the animals died one year alone — and in a somewhat grisly fashion. Their teeth were stained lavender and brown. Their hind legs were grossly swollen while the bodies were rail thin. Open sores persisted on bald areas where the bristly hairs had fallen out in clumps.
Although many of the cattle had arrived at the farm boasting a healthy production record of up to 25,000 pounds of milk a year, their milk flow, once the animals settled down on the Kruger farm, was all but a trickle. Carol Jean began piling the revealing carcasses behind the central barn, to disprove the agricultural inspectors’ first claims that parasites and poor maintenance must have been to blame. The display did little to sway the officials, but for Mrs. Kruger the exercise was an interesting one. She observed that the dogs would not eat the carcasses as they normally had. Occasionally, said Mrs. Kruger, the odor of “burnt brake linings, or spent carbolics” permeated the milking area, and the iridescent sheen of an oily substance coated small puddles of water outside, leading to jokes that the neighborhood was about to become
Among those neighbors living in the 50 homes nearest to her, Mrs. Kruger said she counted 22 cases of bone and joint problems, 17 kidney and bladder difficulties, and 16 instances of lumps and tumors. She claimed that skin rashes and “teeth that crumbled like tissue paper” were also prevalent. After months of complaints, state and county health authorities sent a medical questionnaire to a sample group of 100 homes. The survey was not accompanied by physical examinations, and so it did not provide objective proof of the existence of the disturbances, or suggest their cause. Officials said that the survey uncovered more health complaints of rashes, dizziness, urine sugar, visual problems, limb numbness and other maladies in Hemlock than in a control group chosen in the nearby Michigan town of Blumfield. “It is apparent from the analysis that, for health problems as a whole, sex and age do not explain the differences between Blumfield and [the Hemlock] area,” said state health director Dr. Maurice S. Reizen. He did not venture a theory about possible causes. Because the problems were common to both animals and humans, Mrs. Kruger came to her own conclusion on the common denominator: Life around the area, she speculated, was being slowly and secretly poisoned from the water that was pumped from their wells.
This week, the Senate Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management is expected to consider the mystery of Hemlock during the hearings it will hold on hazardous waste disposal, and one of the witnesses will be Carol Jean Kruger.
The focus of the hearings will concern the problems at landfills, such as the one at Love Canal in Niagara Falls, N.Y., where 247 families were permanently evacuated from their homes when toxicants seeped into their basements from an abandoned chemical dumpsite. The Senate subcommittee is trying to learn why the environmental protection agencies in state governments have not responded more quickly to problems associated with chemical byproducts. Certainly, a major difficulty is funding. Indeed, on June 13, President Carter asked Congress to create legislation that would impose fees on industries to build up a $1.6-billion “superfund” over the next four years; the fund would be used to pay for cleaning up hazardous wastes and oil spills, and for recovering the costs from those responsible. But another problem for the investigators to consider is the sheer complexity involved in examining the perverse effects and identifying the problematic causes of what may be hazardous situations. Perhaps the Senators may not need to search much further for evidence than to consider the medical mystery at Hemlock, a town that is appropriately named.
Virtually all of the thousand or more people in and immediately around Hemlock drew their drinking water from several wells only a short distance from the Kruger farm. Many of them had noticed, during the past several years, a difference in its taste. It had always been brackish in nature, but the saltiness seemed to be increasing all the time, and once in a while, it tasted a bit like cleaning fluid. In their sinks and bathtubs were darkening stains where the water most frequently splashed against the porcelain. For these reasons, Mrs. Kruger began distilling her well water and passing it through charcoal. She believed that as a result, her complexion, which had recently turned yellowish and scaly, was markedly freshened. She recommended the same process to her ailing neighbors, who soon experienced fewer headaches and fainting spells, and felt less nauseated.
By the time one family subscribed to the method it was almost too late. Ed Jungnitsch, a thin man with a folksy smile and an unquenchable thirst, was picking up stones in his yard one Saturday in September of 1976 when he began to ache all over his body. Returning to the kitchen, he quaffed two quarts of water. That night, at a gathering with friends, his mood turned uncharacteristically irritable, “like he thought everyone in the world was against him,” in his wife Kathryn’s words. The following Sunday morning, Ed sprawled on the living‐room sofa and stayed there all day, immobilized with pains in his extremities and the same splitting headache he had carried throughout the previous day. By nightfall, Kathryn felt the need to take him to St. Luke’s Hospital in Saginaw.
Not long after Ed’s inexplicable collapse, Mrs. Jungnitsch found a lump under one of her arms and watched, during the next six months, as lumps spread to her groin, neck and the base of her skull. Only after great difficulty did the doctors reach the diagnosis of hypoplasia of the lymph system‐possibly cancer. Nor was the rest of the household without medical discomforts. The two children, Jennifer and John, had bouts with skin rashes, constant tonsillitis, lethargy and headaches. By two years of age, John’s backbone had still not properly fused. “We talked with Carol Jean, and bought a distiller,” Mrs. Jungnitsch recalls. “Ed got better. He’s to work now. We all got better. My ‘cancer’ disappeared. After a while the doctors suspected the water.” From the filter in the distiller, Mrs. Jungnitsch regularly removed a viscous residue and tossed it on one part of the lawn. Soon, no grass would grow there. There were other unappealing parallels to what had happened on the Kruger farm. In the Jungnitsches’ back lot was a pen with four geese that honked loudly. One of them appeared as if it had spikes piercing from the feathers where the wings should be. In actuality they were deformed wings, facing the wrong way. “You think that’s something?” asks Mrs. Jungnitsch. “How about the chicks? We had chickens, and some geese, too, born with their guts on the outside. About 44, in all.” Down the road, Gary Kricher told of a rabbit he had taken that had green meat throughout the edible parts. Another neighbor lost a small herd of cattle to a strange affliction similar to the symptoms Mrs.
On Feb. 8, 1979, the Michigan Department of Public Health sampled the Kruger wells, finding a high level of salinity but “no connection between the described health problems and the water supply.” It was Carol Jean Kruger’s water well: she believes it to be tainted.
One of Hemlock’s deformed animals: a skew‐winged goose on the Jungnitsch farm. not that the state was immediately discounting the bizarre reports. The technicians were well aware of the capricious nature of ground water — how its quality and composition could fluctuate from time to time. However, there was no laboratory result to account for the health difficulties and so the problem has continued to be undefined.
The county’s health officer, Dr. Senen L. R. Asuan, was less inclined than state officials to say that there was a problem. Although he did not discount the anecdotal accounts of illness, he saw no need for extensive study beyond what had already been carried out. “We consulted a physician there [in Hemlock] and he didn’t know the answer either,” says Dr. Asuan. “There is nothing medically tangible there. We are sitting tight and seeing what else is in the area — looking for more reasons to go in and do more of a survey. So far, we don’t have any plans.”
Still suspicious of the water, and dissatisfied with the governmental response to their requests for an extensive investigation, Mrs. Kruger and the Jungnitsches took it upon themselves to have their wells tested by an independent laboratory, Raltech Scientific Services Inc. of Madison, Wis. This time, laboratory researchers found diethyl ether and low amounts of toluene, Freon‐extractable oil and grease, and trichloroethylene — a substance that causes liver cancer in mice — in the water. While in theory the compounds were capable of wreaking many of the reported ailments, the quantities were not great enough to cause a noticeable impact. Nevertheless, an important question remained: What were these solvents and industrial substances doing 200 feet below the surface, in a farmland aquifer— the underlying rock, sand and clay deposits that formed the underground reservoir storing the water?
Only after the residents informed the state of their analyses did the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (D.N.R.) initiate its own well samplings. In some tests the department tracked toxic compounds such as carbon tetrachloride, aromatic amines, phthalates, PCB’s (polychlorinated biphenyls, highly toxic substances used to insulate electrical equipment), and an unidentified halogenated chemical, but they were at mere trace levels. Secondary tests failed to even confirm their presence. “It’s something that could be missed, I suppose,” says Robert Courchaine, director of the D.N.R.’s water quality division. “You may not find it today, and it may have been there yesterday or last year. But right now, we have no reason to believe there is widespread organic contamination of the aquifer.” Having spent seven days testing some of the Hemlock wells, the water‐quality division decided to halt its analyses in order “to spend more time on problems we know about,” according to Andrew Hogarth, chief of ground‐water compliance, who described Hemlock as a “quandary.”
What the state, in its review of the situation, did not look for may be as important as what it did search out. No formal study was made of the exact ground‐water patterns of the area. No regular surveillance program was instituted to check for sudden variations in contaminant levels. The technicians also had failed to sample well‐bottom sediment, where any industrial compounds that may once have infiltrated the aquifer would have accumulated and lingered the longest.
Dotting the entire Hemlock area is a cluster of industrial wells used through the decades to extract oil and brine from the limestone, shale and dolomite below. In the vicinity of the Kruger farm, there are at least 14 such borings, and more in localities nearby. Most important are the brine wells. It was because of them that, in 1897, Herbert Henry Dow took an interest in founding a chemical company 17 miles to the north, in Midland, where it was to grow into one of the 10 largest chemical concerns in the nation. From brine wells in the Hemlock area, the Dow Chemical Company extracted sodium, chlorides, bromine, magnesium and other ingredients vital to the chemical industry.
Once spent, it is necessary to dispose of the brine, and Dow decided that Hemlock would be a logical place for that operation too. Pipelines were installed to carry the salty wastes into reinjection wells, sending the useless and contaminated brine back into what is known as the Dundee Rock Formation, 2,500 feet or so below the potable water supply. There were at least four reinjection waste wells along the two roads parallel to the Krugers’ street, two within a mile of the problem‐plagued farm. In the two, Dow was reported to have pumped between three and seven billion gallons of spent brine. The discharges had stopped several years ago, except for sporadic usage, it was claimed. One well was operated in October of 1978, but was closed by the state’s Geological Survey when cerns arose over the troubled reports from Hemlock.
There was no evidence that Dow’s waste wells were contaminating the drinking water. In fact, state geologists considered it unlikely that the spent brine, pressured below a thick partition of shale, could migrate upward to the point where It would taint the drinking wells. But no one knew if there were fissures in the shale, and the existence of the old oil wells — some of which may not have been properly capped — raised the possibility, according to the state’s report, that waste liquid had risen up through them, bypassing the shale on the way to the surface.
The state of Michigan was unsure about exactly what was in the “spent brine,” or whether other wastes had also been injected. While Dow maintained that nothing more than the spent saltwater had been sent into Hemlock, the state said only that “we have no information about the nature of substances injected previous to 1974 or of the nature of the production brines.” To find out more about the Dow waste, the Senate subcommittee has sent the company a letter requesting specific information on its reinjection wells.
There was concern over what else may have found way below, for Dow’s Midland plant manufactured or used as intermediates dozens of highly toxic compounds, including tetra dioxin — widely described as one of the most dangerous substances ever synthesized by man — a byproduct in the manufacture of Agent Orange, the herbicide that was used in Vietnam. Tetra dioxin accompanied wastes from Dow’s manufacture of trichlorophenol herbicides. State investigators say trichlorophenol waste was injected underground at Dow’s Midland site itself. Dioxin had already been detected in fish in the Tittabawassee, the river not far from Hemlock, but state investigators had seen the need neither for testing for dioxin itself in the wells (the D.N.R. said such sampling was expensive) nor in coursing the flow of groundwater from the Midland plant. Disagreement has long festered over the safety of deepwell injection of hazardous wastes. It is considered by some governmental regulators and industrialists as the most responsible way of handling chemical or radioactive garbage, far better than the use of surface landfills and more economical than neutralizing the wastes. The critics decry the method as the equivalent to sweeping debris under a rug — sending material into a layer of land where no one can keep track of it.
There are now perhaps as many as 400 injection waste wells in 22 states. While the United States Geological Survey finds the disposal technique acceptable, the states of New York and New Jersey, among others, totally ban their use. There have been some problems with the wells. In Colorado, at the Defense Department’s Rocky Mountain Arsenal near Denver, the pressure of materials in a 12,000‐foot injection well caused small earthquakes; the well had to be capped. In Erie, Pa., an injection well suddenly backed up, to the point where wastes were spewing 20 feet above the surface, like a geyser; ultimately, four million gallons of wastes were spilled. Not long after the Erie episode, then Interior Secretary Walter J. Rickel described deep‐well injection as a potential “Frankenstein monster.”
Aside from the possibility that there was upward migration of Dow’s spent brine, there was also the chance that pipelines transporting the wastes from Midland had leaked their contents near the surface and polluted the groundwater. The brine pipelines had been known to leak in the past, and ran parallel along several of the roads where the loudest health complaints had been voiced. According to the state, there were 24 reported losses of brine from the Midland plant’s pipelines between June 1977 and November 1978, including one spill of 24,000 liters. “We do not have complete records as to the numbers, locations and volumes of brine losses prior to May 1977,” said the state report. “It is possible that significant losses may have occurred during that time period which are not documented.” The pipes were buried about three feet below the surface. When the contents of one spill were analyzed, high levels of chloride and sodium were found, along with smaller amounts of Freon‐extractable oil and grease,
Dow has sent technical experts to speak with Mrs. Kruger and they accompanied the state investigators during their 1978 well samplings. The company says the subsequent state study cleared the firm of any blame for the Hemlock problems and declines detailed comment on the matter. “There is no way we can win in a situation like this,” says Dow spokesman Thomas Sinclair. “We’ve done everything humanly possible. There’s nothing there.”
In June of 1979, a Warren, Mich., physician, Dr. George Waldbott, who specializes in health effects of the environment and has written two books on the subject, said he had examined eight people from Hemlock and believed they were being affected by chemical contamination. His “tentative diagnosis” was that some of them had been sickened by fluoride while others exhibited symptoms suggestive of PCB, phenol or bromide poisoning, or a combination thereof. “I’m convinced that every single one of them had sustained some environmental damage,” he told me. “But it’s hard to hang a hat on one substance. It’s speculative. I’m reasonably sure Mrs. Kruger’s condition is due to PCB’s or PBB’s because of the brown nails and skin pigmentation. … I am really sure only that animals, especially one cow, with mottled teeth, were affected by fluoride exposure. But there are what appear to be clear‐cut cases of fluoride poisoning in the people. On the other hand, more chemicals than fluoride appear to be involved. … I would say that I wouldn’t be at all surprised if these people had consumed a good deal of
It was Dr. Waldbott’s concern that the fluoride content in the water, while not extraordinarily high, might be enhancing the toxicity of other compounds in the water; or the fluoride itself might be made more toxic because of the interactions of the compounds in the water. While the other substances he cited had been found at various times, the state did not think the levels could have been as damaging as Dr. Waldbott inferred.
Another possibility was that the people were suffering from toxic particulates in the air. “My main criticism with the state report was that, besides not testing for dioxin, there was no evaluation of the air,” said Dr. James Truchan, of the D.N.R.’s enforcement division. “I have no doubt the health concerns are real, but pinning it down is very complex thing. … Hemlock is near an oil refinery in Alma, and the Michigan Chemical Company, which had to release bromides because was manufacturing the PBB’s.”
Among those Dr. Waldbott examined was the Wiechec family, which lived near a brine pipeline about a halt‐mile from the Krugers. A combination of arthritis and bone growths, skin boils and other ailments had convinced the physician that illnesses out of the ordinary were occurring, possibly attributable to fluorides and bromides. The Wiechecs’ property was along a stretch of unengaging fields crisscrossed by swales and drainage ditches that had a brownish appearance to them, and carried occasional flecks of oil. These and other ditches, claimed Mrs. Kruger, recently had refused to freeze over even in subzero temperature. In the spring, deep puddles of groundwater flooded the Wiechecs’ front lawn and driveway. “Carol Jean took a sample of our water and they said it was way too high in fluorides,” she said. The state, however, had not checked her well.
Whether or not the Wiechecs had been poisoned by their water, it was clear the family had its problems. Irene Wiechec, at 40, found herself, like her children, continually plagued with rashes, sore throat and hard skin boils she called “corebuckles.” She also related a history of six miscarriages and a partial hysterectomy. One of their children, Carl, had had a kidney removed; his other kidney was becoming sensitive, occasionally bleeding into his urine. A daughter, Rosemarie, missed much school because of kidney and bladder pains, and her mother said the child was embarrassed because her hair occasionally fell out in clumps. The other daughter, Becky, had an even more difficult time with teasing classmates. Several of her permanent teeth had been pulled because they were deformed — shaped like rabbit ears — and were made of black enamel. “The dentist just goes on shaking his head,” Irene stressed. “It’s something she can’t help — and me,I can’t help.”
[resources: Tower of Light]