Engaging the Saginaw Bay Community Around Dioxin Contaminant Cleanup

  • Norbert E. Kaminski, Ph.D.
  • Professor, Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology
  • Director, Center for Integrative Toxicology
  • College of Human Medicine
  • College of Veterinary Medicine
Picture for Engaging the Saginaw Bay Community Around Dioxin Contaminant Cleanup

The Tittabawassee River in Michigan's Saginaw Bay area is a site of significant contamination with a class of environmental pollutants termed dioxin-like compounds. Production practices routinely used to manufacture certain chlorinated compounds during the early and mid-1990s resulted in the unintentional generation of varying levels of dioxin-like compounds that ultimately contaminated the sediment of the 20-mile-long river. This contamination can lead to animal and human exposure to dioxin-like compounds.

"The dioxins associated with the river bottom sediment can be transferred up the food chain as larger organisms consume smaller organisms," Kaminski explained in user-friendly fashion. "For example, micro-organisms are eaten by small fish; small fish are eaten by bigger fish. Those that consume fish from the Tittabawassee River can be exposed. To avoid exposure to potentially harmful levels of these contaminants, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality sets fish advisories to provide guidance on game fish consumption from the river."

Kaminski leads an interdisciplinary team of more than 25 investigators from MSU, the Hamner Institutes for Health Sciences, State University of New Jersey, Rutgers University, Purdue University, University of Texas A&M and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (US-EPA). This Superfund Research Center grant program has been continuously funded since 1988 from the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), one of the institutes within the National Institutes of Health. The current five-year award is for $16 million. The team is investigating human health risks from exposure to dioxins as well as remediation technologies to eliminate the potential for exposure from the environment.

For Kaminski, the overall goal is to have a better understanding of the risk to human health. "These dioxin-like compounds are relevant to human health," explained Kaminski. "Although the environmental levels of dioxin-like compounds are decreasing worldwide, primarily due to changes in industrial processes, they are very long-lasting as they do not break down readily. Therefore this class of environmental contaminants is highly persistent."

One reason the dioxins are so persistent is that they are not readily metabolized once consumed by living organisms. That means that in the case of the Tittabawassee River, once the contaminants were introduced into the river, that's where they stayed. It is also important to emphasize that because these compounds are not water soluble, the water in the river as well as ground water in the surrounding area is safe for animal and human consumption.

Norbert E. Kaminski, Ph.D.

Kaminski's team seeks to contribute critical information to better inform regulatory agencies on how much remediation of the Tittabawassee River may be necessary to make it "safe." "The Tittabawassee River is over 20 miles long," said Kaminski. "Only four miles have thus far been remediated. To what level do you need to remediate? What are the human health risks and allowable human exposure?"

"The Superfund is a very unique funding mechanism. It allows a large scientifically diverse group to focus on a single problem. It's a very unique opportunity to address real world problems in this type of a multi-disciplinary manner."

Norbert Kaminski

The project is now in year two of its current five-year funding cycle, and the investigators are using human models, which is a major focus, in addition to applying various animal models. "Dioxins have been shown to produce a variety of toxicities in animal models," said Kaminski. "But not much data is available in scientific literature on humans. Developments in technology have allowed us to better understand how compounds affect human health. For example, we can obtain human liver cells or liver slices from donors to perform certain tests on the effects of these compounds on human liver. Or we can obtain white blood cells from healthy donors to which we can add dioxins in order to study the effects of these environmental contaminants on immune system function. . . .Because dioxin-like compounds produce different types of toxicities in different animal species, being able to do some of these studies using human tissue is important to ultimately understand the effects of these compounds in people."

The project is organized into several core working groups, such as the Research Support Cores and the Research Translation Core. A new NIEHS requirement for this funding cycle is a Community Engagement Core. "We're required to engage with communities in a bi-directional way," said Kaminski. "It's not just scientists going into a community, but community members having input into some of our research activities."

Jim Dearing, chair and professor in MSU's Department of Communication, is the newly-appointed lead for the Community Engagement Core. He will be working with key stakeholders in the Saginaw Bay area, including a Community Advisory Group (CAG), to understand the level of engagement around the issue of remediation of the Tittabawassee River.

"Because the contamination has been there for so long, it might be challenging to re-engage the community around the issue," explained Dearing. "They might think, ‘Why should it matter? Where's the evidence that we should be concerned?'"

He stresses the importance of establishing community awareness, community knowledge, and community engagement, because of the potential risks involved and because of economic implications to the community.

"The economic impact will hit right to the heart of the issue, specifically regarding decreasing housing values," he said. "And there are risks; a lot is not known. Different sites are different and how sites react to dioxins is different."

According to Dearing, the CAG was formed by the US-EPA to be a conduit between federal agencies and residents living in the Saginaw Bay area. Judi Lincoln, current president of the CAG, indicated that while they have strategic goals in place around the river remediation, the river clean-up will be a long-term process. "It's a slow, plodding implementation of a lengthy project," she said. "We might do two miles [of river remediation] this summer, and then do another two miles next summer." She said the CAG is happy to have help through this extended process.

Another aspect of the new Community Engagement Core is directed at assisting the community in understanding the issues around the clean-up process by meeting with stakeholders and developing informational materials. "We will be trying to provide benefits to the community such as intelligent information about the clean-up, fostering conversations, and then helping others to do that," said Dearing.

For Kaminski, having the opportunity to work with a diverse group of experts on real problems that impact real communities is very gratifying. "The Superfund is a very unique funding mechanism," he explained. "There are very few grants that offer a sufficient amount of funding to do multi-disciplinary work. It's very exciting to work with people from various scientific backgrounds and to hear their perspectives. It allows a large scientifically diverse group to focus on a single problem. It's a very unique opportunity to address real-world problems in this type of a multi-disciplinary manner."

  • Written by Amy Byle, University Outreach and Engagement
  • Photograph courtesy of Norbert Kaminski, Center for Integrative Technology and MSU Communication and Brand Strategy

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