Forced to stay in hotels and other temporary residences until the state and federal authorities finish cleaning up the source of toxic fumes, the refugees are wondering if it will ever be safe to come back, much less stay again.
For decades, they lived blissfully unaware of their proximity to Superfund sites, land so overrun by various forms of pollution that the Environmental Protection Agency needed to assist state decontamination efforts.
They only found out about their dangerous situation starting in May 2016, when clean-up workers hustled them out of the buildings. Evacuations continued as late as August 2017. The largest number of evacuees (224) came from the Vistas Nuevas Head Start preschool.
The primary culprit for the mass exodus are trichloroethylene (TCE) vapors. A key ingredient in metal degreasing agents, large doses of evaporated TCE have been proven to damage nervous systems and cause cancer.
Industrial chemicals like TCE are persistent pollutants that remain in the ground or water long after their initial introduction. Dangerous levels of "vapor intrusion" have been detected in apartments, homes, nonprofit locations. and a preschool in the Michigan cities of Detroit, Grand Rapids and Sturgis.
Owners and tenants were forced to leave the contaminated buildings, often on short notice. Many of those sites remained closed until further notice. (Related: New legal defense: The air pollution made me do it… researchers say it “triggers” unethical behaviors.)
Director Heidi Grether of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) warned state lawmakers about the “significant public health threat” posed by more than 4,200 potential vapor intrusion sites found in the state.
The DEQ confirmed 3,005 vapor intrusion sites across Michigan. More than 40 percent of the listed locations are in Metro Detroit, with the city of Detroit itself containing 362 sites (12 percent of the sites on the DEQ list).
The remaining 1,200-plus sites are the likeliest candidates out of an estimated 6,300 underground storage tanks that have sprung leaks.
To make matters worse, state environmental officials are seriously short on staff and funds. The DEQ must fight toxic vapor intrusion on a $2.6 million budget.
State regulators are forced to depend on reports from the owners of affected properties, complaints filed by neighbors, environmental assessments for new construction projects, or federally-mandated reviews.
Director Grether and Deputy Director Michael McClellan doubted they'll be able to test all 4,200 contaminated sites.
Vapor intrusion is just one of the many environmental problems plaguing Michigan, Governor Rick Snyder explained in an interview. It's not even the biggest one; that dubious honor goes to the far more famous per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) contaminants.
Vapor intrusion wasn't considered a threat to human health until 2015, when new federal guidelines prompted the EPA to mandate testing for it. Environmental regulators realized that vapor levels they previously dismissed as harmless were the exact opposite.
Exposure to TCE, for instance, didn't just increase the risks of cancer and brain damage. Health experts believe it's also linked to serious lung diseases.
The first evacuations related to vapor intrusion have been tracked to May 2016, when the Michigan health department evacuated 33 people from four buildings in Grand Rapids. But the pollution problems preceded that reaction by decades.
Sturgis, for example, was considered a national priority by the EPA in 1984. A Department of Health and Human Services Report in 1993 recommended air sampling near an underground plume.
The sampling only took place 23 years later, as Michigan's Health and Human Services Department evacuated three Sturgis homes in 2016 and 2017.
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