As the water crisis in Flint dominates national headlines, local attention has turned to Ann Arbor’s water system — specifically, a case of possible contamination in the city’s groundwater.
From 1966 to 1986, Gelman Sciences of Ann Arbor manufactured medical filters using dioxane, a potentially dangerous organic compound, subsequently contaminating the city’s surrounding groundwater with the toxic substance 1,4-dioxane. Gelman, acquired by Pall Life Sciences in 1997, is currently held by the Danaher Corporation, who acquired it in 2015.
Since 1992, Gelman Sciences has been held legally liable by the Environmental Protection Agency for monitoring and cleanup of the contamination; this responsibility has been passed on to Gelman’s successor companies.
Currently, both Pall Life Sciences and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality independently test samples from monitoring wells several times a year.
The plume of contaminated water is heavily monitored to avoid human consumption and is undergoing gradual cleanup. More than 120 private wells in the city have been closed since 1985 due to the contamination, but it is currently not considered a danger to the overall city water supply.
During the public commentary period of the Jan. 19 Ann Arbor City Council Meeting, Ann Arbor resident Kai Petainen connected the Flint crisis to Ann Arbor’s contamination in urging the city council push for more state action regarding the underground hole of dioxane (called a plume), and criticized Gov. Rick Snyder’s (R) lack of response to it.
“I was told there was dioxane here, and in my opinion the state has done nothing on it,” Petainen said. “Today Snyder promised to work harder on these issues, hold him to it if he’s not recalled.”
“He has consistently ignored the environment as he aimed for profits. But in the process, he forgot about his true customer. His customers should not have been the businesses, but the people of this great state,” Petainen added.
1,4-dioxane has been linked to cancer and can cause nervous, liver and kidney damage in large amounts. The Environmental Protection Agency linked a dioxane concentration of 3.5 parts per billion in groundwater to a one in 100,000 incidence rate of cancer in a 2010 report.
According to Kristen Schweighoefer, the Washtenaw County Environmental Health director, computer models show the plume is also slowly moving eastward and northeast, which may reach Ann Arbor’s principal water sources of Barton Pond and the Huron River after an extended time frame.
“There is some thought that the plume may eventually reach Barton Pond or the Huron River,” Schweighoefer wrote in an e-mail. “The timeframe is not known, but may be decades or hundreds of years or more away.”
She added there are monitoring systems in place to prevent this contamination from reaching the public.
Ann Arbor Environmental Coordinator Matthew Naud said though dioxane has been detected in private wells, routine tests of city water have never detected any dioxane, let alone any near the hazard threshold of 3.5 parts per billion maintained by the EPA.
“For anybody drinking city water, there is no risk,” Naud said. “That being said, there are areas in the county where it is showing up in private wells … in subdivisions outside the city there is a chance of contamination.”
Despite assurances that there was no immediate risk and that this issue is completely separate from Flint, both Naud and Schweighoefer said the crisis in Flint has drawn more attention to their work regarding the dioxane plume.
“(The 1,4-dioxane contamination) is a different situation from the lead contamination in Flint,” Schweighoefer wrote. “There has certainly been more attention to the situation here and the ongoing actions since the Flint water crisis has been in the news.”