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A state report on pollutants from two northside plants contradicts an earlier study

Sewage Plant Carbon Scrubber
Leona Larson
A carbon scrubber unit at the Kalamazoo wastewater treatment plant is one of the actions taken by the city to reduce gas emissions from the area.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services has faced criticism for its advice to Kalamazoo residents living with pollution in their neighborhoods. A doctor who studied it three years ago questions the state’s methods.

A resident’s call for help prompted Dr. David Ansell from Chicago’s Rush Medical College to study the area around Graphic Packaging and Kalamazoo’s wastewater treatment plant in 2020.

Ansell found a significantly elevated rate of asthma-related hospitalizations among nearby residents, because of high levels of hydrogen sulfide and other gases coming from the two plants.

In the report released last week, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Servicesfound elevated levels of pollutants that may cause chronic eye, nose and throat irritation for people who live nearby. But the report contradicted Ansell's findings and concluded asthma prevalence and hospitalization rates were not significantly higher here than elsewhere in Michigan.

Ansell said that’s because the state only looked at zip codes.

“A zip code is an imprecise, geographical area. And they probably needed to use more Census tracts, particularly around the plant," he said.

Betsy Wasilevich is an epidemiologist at MDHHS. She said the state isn’t done doing its research.

“We are conducting a follow-up analysis to further understand patterns in asthma events in this area, and will evaluate the use of Census tracts,” Wasilevich said.

Ansell also criticized the state’s public health recommendations. He said the state failed to address plant emissions. Instead, the report suggested residents with respiratory problems stay indoors on strong odor days.

Marcus Wasilevich is married to Betsy Wasilevich, the MDHHS epidemiologist. He works for the department too, as a toxicologist. Both Marcus and Betsy Wasilevich contributed to the state report.

Marcus Wasilevich said Ansell is correct that the permanent solution is to cut emissions levels. He says MDHHS is working with the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE), Graphic Packagingand thecity of Kalamazoo to reduce emissions from the two plants.

“What we're going to do is look at the ambient air data as it continues to come in, as these facilities make these changes," he said.

MDHHS is holding a town hall on its report Thursday evening in Kalamazoo. It began at 5:30 pm at Mt. Zion Baptist Church.

Leona has worked as a journalist for most of her life - in radio, print, television and as journalism instructor. She has a background in consumer news, special projects and investigative reporting.