West Side cancer risk blamed on plant’s pollution

Grand Rapids

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The neighborhood in Michigan with the highest risk for cancer caused by air pollution is on Grand Rapids’ West Side, the state said on Thursday.

The state blames it on emissions of a known carcinogen from Viant Medical at 520 Watson St. SW near Lexington Avenue.

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality is working with the Massachusetts-based company to clean it up.

The plant is wedged between an older neighborhood and the downtown Grand Valley State University campus and student housing.

“This area near this facility is the highest in the state for total cancer risk posed over a lifetime of exposure due to air pollutants,” Robert Sills, a supervisor with the DEQ’s Air Quality Division.

He said it does not pose a short-term threat.

“We’re not recommending that people do anything differently in their lifestyle or their activities to try to reduce their exposure, or leave the area or anything of that nature,” Sills said. “We just want them to be aware that this issue is going on in their community and that we’re working with the company and the other agencies to address it.”

He said the state is working with the EPA and the Kent County Health Department. In a statement, Viant said the company is working closely with the DEQ.

The state recently notified Viant that it was in violation because it was polluting the air with ethylene oxide, a known carcinogen. It also issued a violation last July.

The state on Jan. 4 gave the company two weeks to respond.

Viant uses ethylene oxide to sterilize medical equipment, something that’s been done at the factory since the mid-1980s, state officials said.

The company is the biggest source of ethylene oxide emissions in the state, Sills said.

Sills said the state has little information on the history of the company’s emissions, but started looking more closely in the last two years. Emissions tests by the state show the impact stretches eight blocks west from the plant, across the Grand River to the east and about seven blocks north and south. It covers the GVSU campus.

Many West Side neighbors were unaware of the pollution threat.

“A lot of students populate this area here because we’re right by the campus,” said GVSU student Hannah Meyle, who lives in a home west of Viant. “That’s not good at all if they’re polluting the air; there should definitely be something done about it. We put up trees in Grand Rapids to purify the air and get better air quality.”

Julie York, who lives directly across the street from the plant, also wants action.

“I think something should be done and they shouldn’t be able to do that,” she said. “They’re polluting the outside and polluting us, too.”

Bill Mackey, who has lived west of the plant for 25 years, said his brother died of cancer several years ago. His brother lived across the street for a time, he said.

“They should get it fixed,” Mackey said. “Cancer runs in my family. They should get it fixed.”

On Thursday, the Kent County Health Department said it was responding by expanding a West Side cancer study. That has focused farther west, near the old Butterworth dump. The health department started looking into it after residents reported high numbers of cancer cases, but so far hasn’t been able to either prove or disprove a cancer cluster.

“We really want to  know what’s going on down there, and this now gives us a reason to really go looking a bit harder,” health department spokesman Steve Kelso said.

The DEQ said it plans to hold a community meeting on March 6, though it hasn’t picked a location.

Here is the complete statement from Viant:

“Viant is committed to taking all appropriate measures regarding ethylene oxide emissions. We understand the concerns of those in the community and are committed to ensuring our facility follows state and federal standards in support of public health. The public’s safety is of utmost concern, and we will continue to work closely with the DEQ to ensure proper measures are in place and the public receives accurate information.”

Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled ethylene. The error has been corrected.

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