Testing needed to determine if DPI odors endanger health, expert says
ALPENA — Future testing may help Alpena’s north side residents know whether to worry about their long-term health.
A state citation ordered Alpena business Decorative Panels International to fix the source of smells inspectors called “overpowering and intolerable.” Residents living near the plant have claimed the smells made them sick.
DPI officials last week told the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy that the company took steps to mitigate a smell coming from its wastewater lagoon, including adding river water and aerating and recirculating existing water.
“No evidence of, or link to, illnesses in the community as a result of odors onsite has been reported,” Daryl Clendenen, DPI general manager, said in a statement to The News.
Environmental officials have yet to test the air to see if it could cause long-term health problems.
Smells and the chemicals causing them can cause harmful health symptoms, but scientists have difficulty linking smells to actual sickness that won’t go away when the smell is removed, said Brandon Reid, a toxicologist with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Division of Environmental Health.
The only way to determine the safety of the air around a site like DPI is through air sampling, he said.
“We would definitely not trust our noses,” Reid said.
COMPLAINTS, NO TESTING YET
When residents last month met with Alpena Mayor Matt Waligora to voice complaints about the north side smell, several said the strong odors triggered headaches and asthma or other underlying conditions.
Waligora encouraged the residents to take health concerns to the local health department.
District Health Department No. 4 told The News that the department “has no programmatic nor jurisdictional authority in this area” and that oversight for issues related to DPI lies entirely with EGLE.
Alpena residents continue to report offensive smells emanating from DPI to an EGLE hotline for pollution emergencies, including complaints made last week, EGLE spokeswoman Jill Greenberg said.
EGLE has received 77 odor-related complaints from the Alpena area since July 1. Not all of the complaints were about DPI.
The agency has received several complaints specifically reporting alleged public health concerns related to the odors, Greenberg said.
Many residents calling the hotline say the odor — which one caller described as “sulfur, sewage, and death mixed together” — makes them nauseous.
After it completes its review of DPI’s response, EGLE will decide on next steps, including the possibility of air testing, Greenberg said.
DHHS has not tested DPI’s air but is working with EGLE on odor concerns involving DPI, spokeswoman Lynn Sutfin said.
The rotting vegetation odor EGLE inspectors identified as coming from DPI’s lagoon has been identified at other sites as originating from chemicals containing sulfur. Those chemicals require special sampling and have to be analyzed very quickly after collection, Sutfin said.
The agency does not know when such testing might take place at DPI but will share results publicly, Sutfin said.
As a specialist who addresses sites where the state has concerns about environmental contamination and health effects, Reid hears often from residents who want to know if unpleasant and annoying odors will cause long-term harm to their health.
Most symptoms related to offensive odors, such as headaches or nausea, go away as the odor dissipates, whether the reaction stems from the odor itself or a chemical underlying the odor, he said.
Humans have widely varying levels of sensitivities to odors, and experts evaluating the risk posed by sites such as DPI have a hard time doing so based on people’s reactions, Reid said.
A chemical’s potential for harming people through smell depends on the toxicological properties of the chemical “and how much of that chemical reaches the person who is smelling it,” Reid said.
A strong, offensive odor does not mean a chemical is toxic or will cause long-term effects, and scientists often can’t identify a chemical by its odor because some chemicals smell the same or have no smell at all, he said.
Saying his company deeply regrets the inconvenience caused by unpleasant odors from the lagoon, Clendenen, the DPI general manager, encouraged residents who feel ill to consult with their health care providers.
“We are steadfast in our commitment to eradicate odor emanating from the lagoon in the future and sincerely hope this matter is resolved soon,” Clendenen said.
Residents can report environmental concerns to the EGLE Pollution Emergency Alert System at 800-292-4706.