Cancer Hot Spots

Employees of Michigan businesses and homeowners located near polluted land or waterways are more susceptible to cancer, according to federal health data. The cancer concentration by geographic areas, while not fully understood, has large implications.

While genetics and lifestyle choices remain concerns, geographical cancer data obtained by DBusiness indicates that decades of industrial abuse of the environment has contributed to high rates of cancer across Michigan, from Macomb County in metro Detroit to Marquette County in the Upper Peninsula. According to DBusiness’ analysis of nine cancer rates by county, Tuscola, Wexford, Osceola, and Marquette have nearly double the national average of thyroid, kidney and renal pelvis, brain, and nervous system cancers, as well as childhood cancers in two age groups. Other Michigan counties show cancer rates — including bladder, leukemia, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and pancreas — all above the national average.

DBusiness acquired data for the period 2005-2009 — the latest available — from the National Cancer Institute, an agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. The data includes cancer statistics per 100,000 Michigan residents, representing individuals of all races and both genders, who are under 65 years of age. The childhood cancers were reported for ages under 20 years and for those less than 15 years, not by cancer category. 

The high concentration of certain cancers by geographic area, while not fully understood by medical experts, nonetheless has potentially far-reaching implications on quality of life, health care, diet, agriculture, wildlife, and other concerns — tainting Michigan’s ‘Pure Michigan’ brand.

Dr. Jadranka Dragovic, a radiation oncologist and senior staff physician at Henry Ford Heath System’s Josephine Ford Cancer Center in Detroit, and an authority on cancer and the environment, cites Michigan’s cancer statistics as troubling. “The numbers don’t lie,” she says. “They certainly deserve more study.”

Dragovic cautions, however, that despite extensive research into linking cancer to the environment, making a connection remains a difficult undertaking for scientists. One challenge is pinpointing the time when exposure began, she says. Another is isolating considerations like genetics or other risk factors.  

“That (environmental) exposure may have been many, many years before the actual cancer occurs, and yet the environment is being studied now, in this moment, not 15 years ago,” she says. “So what happened then is gone; we don’t have the true picture anymore. You have the historical evidence there was some heavy industry of some sort, or mining, and that can definitely play in the etiology (study of causes), but you cannot prove it.”

Also, keeping data on counties with large, fluid populations such as Wayne and Macomb adds to the difficulty of connecting the environment to cancer. 

“Maybe with information as serious as these numbers show, we don’t really need it to be 100 percent scientifically correct,” Dragovic says. “Rather, as they say, ‘where there is smoke there is fire,’ so just being made aware of this is very important.”

The DBusiness study excluded cancers such as liver, breast, lung, colon, and others that experts link to obesity, heredity, diet, smoking, drinking, and other lifestyle factors. Instead, the study analyzed statistics regarding kidney and renal pelvis, pancreas, thyroid, bladder, leukemia, brain, and ONS (other nervous system), non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and the cancers in two childhood age groups. What these cancers have in common is geographic proximity to the state’s lakes and rivers. Wayne and Macomb counties, for instance, have the Detroit River and Lake St. Clair shorelines. And like Wayne and Macomb, most of the high-rate counties have long histories of environmental pollution from industrial operations on, or adjacent to, those bodies of water.

But the most shocking geographical cancer statistics come from south of the 1,143-square-mile Saginaw Bay, and the Saginaw and Tittabawassee rivers that flow into it. The southern portion of Saginaw Bay, 22 miles of the Saginaw River, and a 24-mile stretch of the Tittabawassee River are part of the state’s largest watershed, a 4,000-plus-acre flood plain that is a major toxic Superfund cleanup site. The flood plain is polluted with cancer-causing dioxins (found in herbicides) and furans (a toxin used in making nylon) that were released into the Tittabawassee River for nearly a century by Dow Chemical Co.’s plant in Midland, and by other industrial operations.

Counties to the south of Saginaw Bay, along the Lake Huron shoreline — Sanilac, St. Clair, Macomb, and Wayne — are also cancer hot spots, according to the data. The Saginaw Bay watershed is described in a Michigan Department of Environmental Quality bulletin as one of the state’s most diverse areas supporting agriculture, manufacturing, tourism, outdoor recreation, and a vast variety of wildlife.    

Past waste management practices, according to the MDEQ bulletin, resulted in the release of a multitude of dangerous chemicals from the Dow Chemical plant since its inception in 1890. The Saginaw Bay area Superfund site, one of 58 in Michigan, is undergoing federal and state-supervised remedial cleanup efforts, and includes industrial, commercial, residential, and agricultural areas of Midland, Saginaw, and Bay counties. In sharp contrast, none of the five counties north of Saginaw along the Lake Huron shoreline, from Saginaw Bay to Alpena, show up in the cancer data.


Lessons from China

The counties located downstream from the Dow Chemical plant mirror an ongoing controversy raging in China, where scientists and journalists have recently focused on high rates of cancer diagnosed in rural villages adjacent to or downstream from industrial polluters. The BBC reported in February that the Chinese environmental ministry appears to have finally recognized the existence of “cancer villages” after years of public speculation about the impact of pollution in certain areas.

In the latest report from the Chinese environmental ministry discussing risks presented by chemicals to the environment, Chinese officials warned that toxic chemicals have caused many environmental emergencies linked to water and air pollution. The BBC report acknowledges that such chemicals could pose a long-term risk to human health — making, for the first time, a direct link to the cancer hot spots.

“There are even some serious cases of health and social problems like the emergence of cancer villages in individual regions,” the report said.

In contrast to China’s recent recognition of the problem, in Michigan, efforts to clean up environmental contamination have gone on for years. For example, in 2011, Dow Chemical signed an agreement with the EPA to clean sections of land along the Saginaw River. A dredging program was initiated in spring 2012 and is expected to last for several years. Dow also announced last year that it would begin testing the soil around 1,400 homes in Midland and would remove and replace any contaminated soil.

Another source of toxicity in the Saginaw River is an inactive 43-acre landfill on the western side of Middleground Island, which has also been designated a Superfund cleanup site. The site was owned by Bay City and operated as a landfill from 1956 until it was ordered to cease operations in 1984 by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

The landfill accepted wood, concrete, municipal, and household wastes; construction, demolition, and industrial wastes; and other debris. An EPA report said sediments in some areas of the Saginaw River and Saginaw Bay were contaminated with a “variety of hazardous substances, including pesticides and polychlorinated biphenyls (known as PCBs).”

Although the Middleground Island landfill is partially capped and has a collection system, according to the EPA and the MDEQ, leachate was found seeping into ditches on nearby roads, and groundwater contaminated with PCB discharges from the site flowed into the Saginaw River. PCBs also were found in the river water and sediment at higher concentrations downstream than upstream, following the natural flow of the river into Saginaw Bay.

Children in Chemical Valley

One of the most puzzling cases of a cancer cluster is now the subject of a two-year investigation. Eleven children in St. Clair County were diagnosed with Wilms’ tumor, a rare kidney cancer that normally strikes children under age 5.

The cancer data shows that St. Clair County is one of the state’s leaders in kidney and renal pelvis cancer, as well as thyroid cancers, with numbers higher than the national average. 

St. Clair County is on the St. Clair River across from Canada and downriver from Sarnia’s so-called “Chemical Valley,” where a number of petrochemical plants are located. More than 700 chemical spills along both the St. Clair and Detroit River corridors have been documented since 1986 on the U.S. and Canadian sides of the waterway, according to water pollution reports listed in the New Baltimore-Chesterfield Patch.


Three of the Wilms’ cases were discovered between 1990 and 1999. The other eight were diagnosed between 2000 and 2009. Three of the cases are in Marine City, on the banks of the St. Clair River, which has a population of 4,241 people. Three of the children live in the East China School District, and the parents of two stricken girls are best friends. All the Wilms’ tumor patients are recovering after treatment.

The rate of occurrence of these 11 cases is three times higher than could be expected in the state, according to a preliminary report from the county and state investigation. National Wilms’ tumor studies indicate that, on average, only 500 cases are diagnosed each year in the entire country.

The St. Clair County Health Department, under its director, Dr. Annette Mercatante, is conducting the investigation with support from the Michigan Department of Community Health.

Mercatante said she could not discuss the results until she shared them with the families involved and officials from the Centers for Disease Control, which is assisting in the investigation. She admitted, however, that investigators do not know much more about these cases than when they began their work two years ago. She pledged that neither she nor those involved in the investigation are discouraged to the point of giving up.

“This is not a final investigation, as we are still trying to develop a better system for these cases,” she says. “There does seem to be a disproportionate number in Marine City, where three cases were reported. It is only the fifth largest city in the county.”

Previous national investigations of risk factors for Wilms’ tumors have not yielded consistent results. Children under 2 years of age seem to be most susceptible, and girls have higher incidence rates than boys. A small portion of cases appear to be heritable, especially cases where the children already suffered from other tumors or other inherited syndromes or birth defects. Other unconfirmed risk factors include the father’s occupation (mechanic or welder), heavy birth weight, and the mother’s consumption of coffee and tea and use of hair dye or various medications.

“Apart from some specific syndromes which are congenital, where you have different malformations that come together, the remainder are really not explainable,” says Dragovic, who is aware of the investigation but is not involved in it. “The only evidence we have for Wilms’ tumor — and it is fairly weak — points in the direction that pesticides can be a causing agent.”


While Mercatante believes state cancer rates are significant, she could not interpret them with any confidence. “There is a level there of complexity that is beyond my expertise,” she says. The cause of such spikes in cancer is not necessarily environmental, she adds. “It could be genetic, it could be behavioral, or (it could involve) other factors.”

Due to U.S. and state budget constraints, fewer resources are being devoted to researching such complex patterns. “It is difficult to have a support system to really work on something like this,” Mercatante says.

Cancer Rates Up North 

In the Upper Peninsula, counties with histories of industry, chemicals, manufacturing, and mining have shown higher rates of certain cancers than elsewhere in the state and have reported incidence rates that are above national averages.

Marquette County, which has the state’s highest rates for leukemia and brain cancer and the fourth-highest rate for thyroid cancer, had been involved in iron and copper mining and iron production dating back to the mid-1800s. Blast furnaces, fired by charcoal from the surrounding forests, were used to reduce iron ore to pig iron — a practice that continued into the early 1900s, when coke from coal replaced charcoal.

In turn, the Cliff/Dow landfill owned by the city of Marquette was a disposal site for a charcoal company from 1954 until the 1960s. It was cleaned up as a Superfund site between 1990 and 1995.

Hazardous substances, primarily volatile organic compounds and polyaromatic hydrocarbons, were dumped there and contaminated the groundwater, according to the EPA. After extensive cleanup, the site was removed from the national priorities list in 2000.

On the tip of the Lower Peninsula, Cheboygan and Otsego County, to its south, are also prominent in the cancer profiles. Cheboygan, where the mouth of the Cheboygan River meets Lake Huron, is third in the state for bladder as well as kidney and renal cancers, with rates nearly 50 percent higher than the national average. Cheboygan is also in the 94,130-acre watersheds of the Cheboygan River, Black River, and Douglas Lake.

Otsego County is second in kidney and renal pelvis cancer and fourth in non-Hodgkin lymphoma, with equally high rates far above the national average. From 1987 until it closed in 2006, Georgia-Pacific operated a large particleboard factory in Gaylord. For years the plant, which began operation in 1965, was the target of environmental activists who protested the release of potentially cancer-causing chemicals into the atmosphere.

An article published in 2005 in the Bay City Times listed the plant as the No. 2 polluter of the air in northeast Michigan, based on toxic release data submitted by the company to the EPA. The plant reported releasing 89,189 pounds of formaldehyde in 2002 and as much as 76,279 thousand pounds in 2005, the year before Georgia-Pacific closed the plant.

Formaldehyde has been classified as a known human carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer and a probable human carcinogen by the EPA. The Bay City Times story reported Gaylord’s Georgia-Pacific plant, and the Dow Chemical plant in Midland, ranked among the country’s dirtiest facilities.


Ingham County, straddling the Grand River through Lansing, has the state’s highest rate of childhood cancers under age 15, is second in brain cancer, and recorded rates for childhood cancer under age 20 that are above the national average. The county is home to five EPA-designated Superfund cleanup sites involving a former plating company, a landfill, an industrial drum reclamation facility, a chemical company, and an automobile company disposal site. 

The Grand River, flowing northwesterly across the state from Jackson County to where it enters Lake Michigan near Grand Haven, also carries a history of industrial pollution at various points along its course. Likewise, Wexford and Grand Traverse counties, adjacent to each other and popular with vacationers for their sparkling lakes, have distinctive cancer profiles as well.

Wexford leads the findings with nearly double the state and national average for thyroid cancer and rates well above those averages for non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The county counts 22 lakes among its attractions, including the 1,200-acre Lake Cadillac and 2,800-acre Lake Mitchell. Although their resort bona fides are well-established, both Wexford and Grand Traverse have not-so-well-known industrial pasts that landed them on the state’s list of Superfund cleanup sites.

Dr. James Wilson, medical director for the local health department, which serves Wexford County, was not surprised by the results.

“I am sure there is some link between the environment and these cancers, and maybe some genetic predispositions through immigration,” he says, noting the history of industrial abuse in the county. “Lumber was treated here, (producing) wood-tar creosote. They dumped stuff in the lakes and marshes, and there are known dump sites that are actively being cleaned up.”

In Cadillac, the Kysor Industrial Corp. Superfund site, in Wexford County, covers approximately a square mile along the northern border of the city, according to the EPA. Kysor is an automotive parts manufacturing plant that began operation in 1959. The EPA said Kysor’s past waste disposal practices — including dumping barrels of spent solvent directly onto the ground behind the plant — led to current contamination problems. Over time, the discarded solvent worked its way into the groundwater.

According to the EPA description of the site, the contaminated groundwater “migrated northward to a residential area north of the industrial park in Haring Township.” The main concern is the presence of volatile organic compounds such as trichloroethylene (TCE) and tetrachloroethylene (PCE), which the EPA said can cause carcinogenic and noncarcinogenic health effects if people are exposed to them by drinking or coming into contact with contaminated groundwater.

“No one is currently drinking or coming into contact with contaminated groundwater from the site,” the EPA reported.


Similar groundwater contamination was also an issue in Grand Traverse County. There, the problem was caused by a U.S. Coast Guard Air Station that occupied 435 acres where oils, lubricants, paints, paint-stripping solvents, aviation gasoline, and dry-cleaning solvents had been released into the ground by direct dumping, spills, and storage tank leaks since the air station opened in 1943.

In 1980, several homes down gradient from the station were found to have contaminated wells. Identified contaminants included known carcinogens such as benzene and TCE, toluene, acetone, carbon tetrachloride, and other organic compounds. Water lines were extended into the 15-square-block contaminated area in 1981. After extensive cleanup efforts, the site was removed from the national priorities list in 2006.

While the public is aware of the publicized EPA Superfund lists of contaminated areas in the state, there are other sites with dangerous materials, hazardous to human health, that have generally fallen under the radar.

For example, earlier in the last century, before natural gas service became available, homes and businesses in Michigan depended on gas manufactured from coal for cooking, heating, and lighting. With the advent of natural gas, however, these plants were shut down and demolished — leaving behind underground holding tanks containing tar, oil, and other manufacturing byproducts.

According to the EPA, there are about 70 such sites around the state. Many of the tanks are leaking and contaminating the ground around them with potentially hazardous material including known and suspected carcinogens.

DTE Energy and Consumers Energy are now responsible for 40 of the sites, which they acquired through purchases of former power companies. (DTE has 17 such sites and Consumers Energy has 23.)

DTE has recently cleaned up two sites in Detroit and one in Grand Rapids. Last fall, the company began a $3-million cleanup of 16 acres along the Huron River that was part of the Washtenaw Gas Co. that operated from 1900 until MichCon bought it in 1938. DTE became responsible for the site when it acquired MichCon in 2001.

Soil and water tests conducted south of the site and in the river have not shown any contamination, according to a company official.

With 11,000 lakes and 36,000 miles of rivers, Michigan is a wonderful playground for outdoor activities. But pollution in many of those bodies of water resulted in fish populations with high concentrations of chemicals such as mercury, dioxin, and PCBs.

As a result, the latest statewide fish advisory from the Michigan Department of Community Health suggested that males 15 years of age and older and females over 45 should eat no more than one meal per week of one fish from a list of eight different species — including popular catches such as walleye and yellow perch over nine inches. Women of childbearing age and children under 15 are restricted to one meal per month from the same list.


PBB Contamination 

Not all Michigan cancer patterns are arguably traceable to industrial activity near waterways. Nearly 40 years after the fact, some state residents are still living with the after-effects of the worst chemical and agricultural disaster in the history of the United States: the PBB contamination of cattle feed in Michigan.

More than 33,000 cattle had to be destroyed and, by the time the problem was discovered, 15 farms had been contaminated with polybrominated biphenyl, or PBB, a flame retardant. More than 1.5 million chickens and thousands of pigs, sheep, and rabbits were also destroyed and buried. Most of the animals are buried in two state-monitored sites in Mio and Kalkaska, but there are dozens of other sites around the state that are not monitored, where farmers buried their own tainted cattle.

State health officials estimate that 98 percent of the residents of Michigan have been contaminated with PBB through the ingestion of beef, milk, and dairy products, along with other animals and their products.

Efforts to stop the spread of contamination from the chemical company that mixed the toxic material with animal feed in St. Louis, in Gratiot County, have failed. The EPA said that after years of spending more than $100 million to contain the material at the site of the former Velsicol Chemical Corp. (formerly Michigan Chemical Corp.) that at one time included several buildings and storage tanks, contamination continues in the ground around the site of the razed plant and in the adjacent Pine River.

Late last year, EPA and MDEQ officials announced another round of cleanup efforts at the location of the plant, which one published article said was the largest Superfund site in the Midwest and would cost $354 million to clean up. Media reports from around the state continue to document complaints from once-healthy families, exposed to PBB, whose offspring or grandchildren have developed cancer or malformations and illnesses that were never part of the family history.


While studies conducted by state and university experts of residents who were exposed to PBB confirm some of their fears, scientists are still looking to make the definitive link to PBB. Because of Michigan’s budget restraints, the major study tracking 4,000 residents exposed to PBB was recently farmed out to Emory University in Atlanta.

Oil Spill in Kalamazoo

Like the PBB catastrophe 40 years ago, Michigan suffered a more recent environmental disaster that could also lead to health threats. Scientists will be monitoring the fallout from nearly 1 million gallons of heavy tar sands oil from Canada that spilled into the Kalamazoo River when a pipe transporting the toxic material ruptured in July 2010. Despite an $800-million cleanup so far, EPA officials ordered additional work last fall after more oil was found in at least three areas in the river. Enbridge — the same company now pushing the massive Keystone project, which would pipe tar sands oil from Canada across the U.S. to Houston — operates the ruptured pipeline.

Despite the geographic cancer pattern evident in the statistical data, experts remain cautious when asked to attribute cause and effect: “Given the evidence of substantial environmental contamination in a number of Michigan communities, additional studies are needed to measure individual exposures to these contaminants, as well as genetic and other risk factors, to better define the potential link to cancer,” says Dr. Ann G. Schwartz, deputy director and executive vice president for research and academic affairs at the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute in Detroit. “There is certainly a need to continue to clean up contaminated sites, regulate carcinogens, and monitor the health of residents in these areas.” db