The University of Michigan’s research in human and environmental health is of global import. Should the university “think local” as well? In this segment of WEMU’s “The Green Room,” Barbara Lucas looks at the University of Michigan and the Ann Arbor area’s 1,4-dioxane contamination.
David Fair (DF): The University of Michigan has been close to Ann Arbor’s dioxane problem from the start. It was a U of M student who first discovered the toxin, draining from Gelman Sciences into a nearby lake. And now, the University finds itself in the path of the spreading plume. In the eighth of WEMU’s “Green Room” series, Barbara Lucas ask the question, what is U of M’s involvement in studying Ann Arbor’s dioxane problem?
Video narrator (Andrew Maynard): How dangerous is 1,4-Dioxane?
Barbara Lucas (BL): This is a video produced by Dr. Andrew Maynard, who’s currently a professor at Arizona State University.
Video narrator (Andrew Maynard): That may seem like an obscure question, but if you live near dioxane contamination, it’s an important one…
BL: Two years ago when he produced it, he was the University of Michigan Charles and Rita Gelman Risk Science endowed professor. He was also director of U of M’s Risk Science Center, which received a $5 million gift from Charles and Rita Gelman. I ask if industry money affects research. He says he made every effort to avoid influence. But he feels…
Maynard: Very clearly there are subtle impacts of taking money from companies to do research and those subtle impacts are along the lines of which questions are asked, and which questions are not asked. And so you get to the Gelman situation and you look at how much research is being done at the University of Michigan on the dioxane contamination, and the answer is remarkably little. You look at how often we actually use that local contamination as a teaching opportunity and a teaching moment for our environmental health students, and the answer is virtually never. I think I was one of the only faculty that actually did that when I was there. So clearly these donations have a very, very subtle effect on what is done and what is not done.
BL: Another consideration is raised by Dr. Henry Pollack, former geology professor at U of M. He points out that instead of a local community orientation, U of M has had more of an international focus. His research, for example:
Henry Pollack: Maybe a third of my papers you will find the word “global” in the title. I like to look at big picture items, and things that affect the whole world, or describe the whole earth. And so that’s definitely at the expense of looking at a community problem.
BL: Indeed, he is world renowned for his work on global climate change.
Pollack: Not to minimize the community problem, but my interests were more in a global picture. The University loves that kind of stuff. If it is a local problem and has national and international implications, it will be popular at the University.
BL: Dr. Pollack is joined by his wife, Lana Pollack, former president of the Michigan Environmental Council and Ann Arbor state senator. The Pollacks feel Michigan’s water issues may be reaching that national stage.
Lana Pollack: If we go though a period of public interest in…
HP: And public outrage!
LP: —and public outrage, and public demand—for clean water, then this could be part of that story. But frankly, there are so many stories…
HP: And what Flint has shown, what it immediately led to, is there are Flints all over the place!
BL: Although much less dangerous than lead, dioxane contaminated water is also being discovered in a growing number of communities around the country . Dr. Rita Loch-Caruso is a toxicologist at the University of Michigan. She’s hopeful of more U of M involvement.
Rita Loch-Caruso: I think the time is coming, is arriving.
BL: She’s director of the Center on Lifestage Environmental Exposures and Disease at U of M.
Loch-Caruso: And one of the things that Center is supposed to do is to respond to local and regional environmental health crises.
BL: She says the goal is for the center to be engaged in community health crises, and to be part of…
Loch-Caruso: … the measured, science-based discussion. And that’s what I want us—our center—to be doing.
Fade in music and narration from video.
Video narrator (Andrew Maynard):
BL: How are other communities with 1,4-Dioxane contamination dealing with it? Stay tuned as we explore this and more on upcoming segments of “The Green Room.”
Video narrator (Andrew Maynard): Check out the links below, and as always, please do join the conversation in the comments.
(BL): Barbara Lucas, 89 One, WEMU News.
DF: The Green Room is an exclusive presentation of the WEMU News Department. To hear the first seven Green Room reports on the Ann Arbor area's 1,4 dioxane plume, visit the archive at wemu.org. I'm David Fair and this is 89.1 WEMU.
“How dangerous is dioxane in your drinking water?” by Andrew Maynard, Risk Bites series on Youtube.