St. Louis residents continue to deal with Velsicol health impacts

Bench outside former Velsicol plant site

Bench outside former Velsicol plant site

The former Velsicol plant site is surrounded by several community blocks where people still live.

Originally the EPA thought the contamination from the plant could be contained within the borders of the site. However, years after the initial cleanup, EPA officials determined this wasn’t the case.

Now the EPA and Michigan DEQ are working to excavate the yard of each house contaminated with chemicals from the plant, including DDT.

Terri Kniffen lives in one of those houses.

You can see the former facility site from her front yard.

She keeps up with the cleanup because it directly affects her family and her neighbors.

“I firmly believe noone should be living near that plant site. I believe they should be relocated. I don’t feel it’s safe. I don’t think it’s ever going to be cleaned up to where it is safe.”

Kniffens yard has been excavated and she’s been told it’s contamination free.

Despite assurances, Kniffen said she still has a hard time believing it’s safe.

“As simple as I can put it, I don’t believe them. When they give you paperwork, or say that your yards cleaned up, or this is gonna happen or that’s not gonna happen. So many times in the past it’s been untrue, so untrue.”

Kniffen bases her distrust on her past experiences during the cleanup.

For example, her basement periodically floods. She said four-years ago, she asked if it was possible that her basement was contaminated.

She was told no, but after multiple requests, the DEQ did check her basement for contamination.

“When they skimmed the water off the top of the sump pump, I got the results back. There was contamination in my sump pump. There were four types. This stuff has been travelling across my basement floor for years. And I spoke with my physician ‘ya know can this be airborne?’ and he said ‘absolutely, it’s a concern’.”

Kniffen isn’t the only one concerned about the health of those in St. Louis. Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia is home to a program known as the Michigan PBB Registry.

Former Velsicol plant site

Former Velsicol plant site

According to the EPA, it is Velsicol that is responsible for PBB contamination and Emory’s scientists are studying the long term effects on people.

Dr. Michelle Marcus is one of the scientists involved with the study.

She said after two trips to St. Louis and studying medical reports from roughly 500 people, Emory is beginning to think this may be a larger problem than expected.

“The overwhelming majority of the people that we tested still have elevated levels of PBB and this is 40 years later. So we’re very concerned that the exposure to PBB was quite widespread in the state.”

Marcus said some of the findings are hard to swallow.

“So we found that, uh, the daughters of women who were highly exposed that they had their first menstrual period a full year earlier than girls who were born to unexposed women. Now that they are adults they have a very high rate of miscarriages.”

She said the most striking effects have been found in the children of those exposed to PBB.

“Male children who were exposed in utero there were more problems of the urinary and genital tract then you would expect. Some of these were like undescended testes, or malformation of the urinary and genital tract.”

Marcus said she and her team would like to open testing to anyone who thinks they may be affected by PBB.

Whether they can rests with the National Institutes of Health.

Marcus and her colleagues have nearly run out of funding. Right now, they’re working toward acquiring a new grant to continue their work.

For Terri Kniffen, the efforts by Emory University are encouraging, but it won’t change what has happened to her, her family and her neighborhood.

For the previous portion of the story, click here.