10 takeaways from state investigation into Kalamazoo’s air pollution
HomeHome > Blog > 10 takeaways from state investigation into Kalamazoo’s air pollution

10 takeaways from state investigation into Kalamazoo’s air pollution

May 28, 2024

A 3D image of the wastewater treatment plant in Kalamazoo created with the help of a drone.

KALAMAZOO, MI -- The air quality in part of Kalamazoo is considered hazardous, according to a new state investigation.

The Michigan Department of Human Services (MDHHS) report broke the news Monday, May 8, as it examined the levels of pollution around the Graphic Packaging International paper mill and city wastewater treatment plan on Kalamazoo’s Northside.

The report confirmed what residents have feared for years: The chemicals are concentrated enough to cause long-term health problems.

Here are 10 takeaways from the 142-page health consultation report.

Air concentrations of hydrogen sulfide gas next to Graphic Packaging International and the Kalamazoo Wastewater Reclamation Plant present a public health hazard, the state found after examining 33 months of data.

Consistently breathing in levels of hydrogen sulfide exceeding 1.4 parts per billion can lead to chronic health problems. One of the main issues is an increased risk of nasal irritation that does not go away once the person stops breathing in the gas, the state health department said.

Concentrations of gas throughout the communities next to the industrial facilities regularly exceed 1.4 parts per billion, MDHHS said.

For example, the average level was about 19 parts per billion for the year of 2020 at a sensor at Gull and Riverview.

The report lays out what they high pollution levels mean for the area’s youngest residents.

“Children are more likely to be exposed to environmental contaminants due to their unique behaviors: they are more likely to play outdoors, where air contaminants are more prevalent, and play or sit in dirt or soil; and they are more likely to put objects or their hands in their mouth that may have been contaminated by the environment,” the report states.

Children also breathe more air per pound of body weight than adults, and their shorter height makes them more likely to be exposed to chemicals in the air that accumulate near the ground.

Children’s bodies are also less able to break down and remove toxic substances compared to adults. Toxic exposures that happen during critical growth stages can permanently damage developing children, the report says.

DeAnn Winfield's granddaughter Maya Lachey (Center), 6, rides on a carousel at the park across from Winfield’s home in the Northside of Kalamazoo on Tuesday, July 27, 2021. Winfield’s concern is with the safety of her family and the community, hoping that there will be a better future for them. (Photo by Carlin Stiehl | MLive.com)Carlin Stiehl | MLive.com

Elevated levels of formaldehyde were found on the property of the city wastewater treatment plant, but no measurements were taken for the dangerous chemical in residential areas nearby.

This was listed as one of several limitations of the state health consultation.

Related: Drone sniffs out toxic chemicals above Kalamazoo wastewater treatment plant

The report focused on hydrogen sulfide, the foul smelling toxic gas that comes from the wastewater plant and Graphic Packaging.

MDHHS recommends further monitoring and sampling for formaldehyde and other volatile organic compounds in the area.

The report also mentions that 60 unique volatile organic compounds were measured.

Of those, 12 volatile organic compounds are known to be emitted by Graphic Packaging. Those chemicals are: 2-butanone (methyl ethyl ketone), 2-ethyl-1-hexanol, acetaldehyde, benzene, n-butane, carbon disulfide, hexane, n-pentane, propene/propylene, toluene, vinyl acetate, m- & p-xylene.

A town hall is scheduled to allow citizens to ask questions and get answers from state health and environmental officials.

At 5:30 p.m. Thursday, May 18, there will be a town hall at Mt. Zion Baptist Church, 120 Roberson St., in Kalamazoo. Call 800-648-6942 with questions.

A flyer for a community townhall focused on odor and air quality in Kalamazoo neighborhoods north of downtown.

An additional availability session goes from 1 to 3:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 24 at the Urban Alliance in Kalamazoo.

The report explores the relationship between air quality and asthma in the community.

The asthma rate is higher in ZIP codes that include neighborhoods near the industrial sources, but not high enough to be statistically significant, the MDHHS report states.

Here’s how adult asthma prevalence in these areas compares to the state average:

The asthma study used grouped ZIP codes, and an independent health expert has questioned the results, saying expanding to a larger area could lead to a missed signal.

More research is needed to determine if there is a relationship between asthma cases and the air quality, the report states.

However, air quality is known to be a factor in respiratory diseases.

Portrait of DeAnn Winfield at her home in the Northside of Kalamazoo on Tuesday, July 27, 2021. Winfield contracted asthma which she attributes to the air pollution put out by Graphic Packaging International down the street from her house. (Photo by Carlin Stiehl | MLive.com)Carlin Stiehl | MLive.com

The MDHHS report says people should stay indoors if they have existing respiratory problems or sensitivity to odors. They should also avoid outdoor exercise or physical exertion when an environmental odor is present, the report states.

“For community members with existing respiratory problems or sensitivity to odors, stay indoors and avoid outdoor physical activity when environmental odors are noticeable,” the report says.

Residents are not satisfied with that answer.

“They expect us to stop living our life?” resident DeAnn Winfield said upon reading the recommendations.

MDHHS will develop a community engagement and outreach plan to notify Kalamazoo residents of the findings. This plan could include public notification, town halls and listening sessions.

The city of Kalamazoo is working on a project to reroute the wastewater coming from Graphic Packaging and going to the wastewater treatment plant, in an effort to reduce hydrogen sulfide production. The company is working on a project of its own, ordered by state environmental regulators, meant to reduce the creation of hydrogen sulfide.

Twenty parts per billion -- a different standard the state used in the past when considering hydrogen sulfide in Kalamazoo -- was not mentioned in the MDHHS report. In October, state officials said 20 parts per billion was a metric used to determine health risk.

That’s also the Centers for Disease Control intermediate benchmark, meaning 20 parts per billion should not be exceeded for any time periods between 15 to 364 days.

Monthly averages of the gas have regularly been above 20 parts per billion in Kalamazoo. State health officials chose not to include any analysis of this level in the report.

City of Kalamazoo data on hydrogen sulfide levels found in the air at the corner of Gull Road and Riverview Drive. Data from September 2019 to March 2022 is 1-minute data averaged by month. Data from April 2022 to September 2022 is 15-minute sample data averaged by month.

The city sensor at Gull and Riverview, shown above, has been over 20 parts per billion several times.

Asked why they did not use 20 parts per billion, MDHHS officials said they decided to focus on the long-term exposure benchmark, 1.4 parts per billion.

MLive/Kalamazoo Gazette reached out to a number of officials to ask for comment. The city and county made brief statements after being asked. There has been little public acknowledgement of the report.

Vice Mayor Don Cooney was one who commented, saying the state’s recommendations are “very disappointing.”

Sen. Sean McCann sent a statement when asked by MLive/Kalamazoo Gazette, and the office of Rep. Julie Rogers responded they would draft a statement.

The state health study confirms this problem persists, McCann said.

“My office participates in the city of Kalamazoo’s Odor Task Force, which is working to address this matter and I support the efforts of the city, EGLE, DHHS, EPA and other stakeholders to resolve the situation,” McCann said.

The multi-agency odor task force has met in non-public meetings for years in an attempt to address to odor issue.

Mayor David Anderson sent a statement when asked by MLive/Kalamazoo Gazette.

“The City Commission and administration share the community’s concerns,” Anderson said. “This issue remains a priority for the city of Kalamazoo which will continue to work toward mitigating and attempting to eliminate this problem.”

A graphic by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services shows some facts about hydrogen sulfide. The graphic was released with the air quality study in Kalamazoo.

Want more Kalamazoo-area news? Bookmark the local Kalamazoo news page or sign up for the free 3@3 Kalamazoo daily newsletter.

Also on MLive:

Stay indoors to avoid polluted air hazard, state says. That’s no solution, neighbors say.

’Free-for-all’ pedestrian scramble crossings eyed for downtown Kalamazoo

I-94 project inches closer to finish as new ramp opens

Tear gas will still be used as ‘last resort’ in Kalamazoo, police decide

Air pollution levels in Kalamazoo neighborhood are hazardous, state finds

3 asbestos-filled houses to be demolished by city of Kalamazoo

If you purchase a product or register for an account through one of the links on our site, we may receive compensation. By browsing this site, we may share your information with our social media partners in accordance with our Privacy Policy.