Washington, DC–(ENEWSPF)–August 7, 2014. Residents of St. Louis, Michigan aren’t used to seeing large excavators and dump trucks haul piles of dirt from their front yards or entire blocks of big, neighborhood trees felled. What they are used to seeing are dead birds —sometimes even spontaneous, mid-flight deaths of the birds— and because of a toxic series of events, disasters, and delays spanning decades, the two sights are inextricably connected.
As one St. Louis resident described to the Detroit Free Press, dozens of dead robins and blackbirds had been collected from her backyard in the 18 years she has lived there, with the most recent just a couple weeks ago. This experience and other similar stories from the area prompted researchers at Michigan State University (MSU) to start figuratively and literally digging.
Matt Zwiernik, Ph.D., an environmental toxicologist at MSU, and volunteers collected 29 dead birds, including 22 robins, last year from a nine-block residential area in St. Louis. The scientific sampling was only a small portion of the dead birds they could have collected, Dr. Zwiernik explained to reporters at the Detroit Free Press, as time, distance, logistics, and access to property sometimes limited collection efforts. Nevertheless, it was enough to show some alarming results.
Forensic study of the bird carcasses reveal brain and liver abnormalities in 12 of the 29 birds, and the mean total level of DDT or its breakdown components in the collected robins’ brains was 552 parts per million — some of the greatest concentrations ever recorded in wild birds, Zwiernik said. To put it in perspective, thirty parts per million of DDT are known to cause death in many bird species. In the case of the St. Louis birds, sudden death was from feeding on contaminated worms, grubs and insects, poisoned by the area’s DDT-tainted soils.
DDT is an organochlorine pesticide that was banned in the U.S. in 1972 due to its persistent and highly toxic nature. DDT was widely used to control mosquitoes for malaria abatement, and in agriculture. Despite the fact that DDT was banned in the U.S. 40 years ago, concentrations of this toxic chemical’s major metabolite, DDE, have remained alarmingly high in many ecosystems, including surface waters, the Arctic, and even U.S. national parks. This is because DDT/DDE are persistent organic pollutants (POPs). POPs are organic compounds that are resistant to environmental degradation through chemical, biological, and photolytic processes. Because of this, they have been observed to persist in the environment, are capable of long-range transport, bioaccumulate in human and animal tissue, and biomagnify in food chains, as seen in the St. Louis birds.
Of course, unlike the many instances of DDT contamination and poisoning in humans and wildlife, the researchers and residents in St. Louis knew exactly where to look for the source of the DDT —the nearby former Velsicol Chemical factory and superfund site. According to EPA, the Velsicol Chemical Corp. (formerly the Michigan Chemical Corp.) produced various chemical compounds and products at its 54-acre main plant site in St. Louis, Michigan, from 1936 until 1978. To address contamination discovered at the former plant site (after a catastrophic plant error mixed thousands of pounds of another toxic chemical—polybrominated biphenyl (PBB))—into lifestock feed), a consent judgment was entered into by Velsicol, EPA and the State of Michigan in 1982.
Because the Pine River borders the former main plant site on three sides and was known to also be significantly contaminated, part of the settlement involved Velsicol’s agreement to construct a slurry wall around the former plant site and put a clay cap over it. The river sediment pollution was addressed at that time by the State of Michigan, which issued a no-consumption advisory for all species of fish in the Pine River. The fish advisory remains in effect today.
But despite the $100 clean-up efforts targeting the water contamination, 2006 testing revealed that soil and water remained contaminated. This in addition to the remaining clean-up efforts still needed at the factory site itself and in the surrounding soil. More studies ensued, with an eventual Feasibility Study issued in 2011 and June 2012 Record of Decision that included clean-up of residential areas and a comprehensive clean-up of the main plant sit.
To add insult to injury, because of Velsicol’s declaration of bankruptcy in 1982, its consent decree only required a contribution of $20 million to the clean-up effort —the remainder of the economic burden, past and future, being born by federal and state taxpayers.
Even more disturbing than the dead birds, dug up neighborhoods, and dumped economic responsibilities that span decades are the unaccounted for health impacts of DDT and other chemicals on the residents of the neighborhood. Organochlorines like DDT have been linked to a number of adverse effects to human health, including birth defects, breast cancer and autism. DDT has also been linked to Vitamin D deficiency, non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, and diabetes.
The severe delays and deficiencies in the federal and state toxic contamination clean-up process highlight the need for better precautionary measures and stricter health, environmental, and safety standards to be imposed before chemicals enter the homes, gardens, and air that surrounds us. Supporting organic systems and calling on the EPA and Congress to improve risk assessment frameworks are just a few of the steps you can take to avoid experiences like the one in St. Louis. Visit our website to learn more about pesticide impacts and what can be done to stop them before they happen!
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.
Image: Romain Blanquart/ Detroit Free Press. The EPA loads waste soil after excavating it from around properties contaminated with the pesticide dichlorodiphenyl trichlorethane (DDT) that stand close to the former Velsicol Chemical Corp. on Center Street in St. Louis.