Arsenic and laced walls 

It was years before Renee Crouch learned that the tap water she and her family were drinking from a private well in Brandon Township was making them sick.

Her symptoms -- including peeling skin, fatigue, bleeding fingertips and memory loss -- lasted through her pregnancy. Once the baby was born, Crouch mixed the water with her baby's formula. She later had the well water tested by the state and found it was tainted with arsenic.

"My family has been through hell and back," Crouch said recently. Her daughter, Danica, is now 6 years old.

Oakland County plans to issue maps this month to show other residents where elevated levels of arsenic and other contaminants have been discovered.

But critics say that the maps are being issued years late, only after pressure from commissioners and others, and that the maps contradict official denials that some arsenic levels were high enough to warrant concern.

The maps will use shading to indicate whether arsenic is detectable and whether levels found in an area are above or below the federal limit for public water supplies -- 50 parts per billion (ppb). Given that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been questioning its arsenic standard for years and that the World Health Organization's safety cutoff is 10 ppb, County Commissioner Ruth Johnson says the maps should include more detail.

"You could be drinking water that's just a fraction less than the contamination level used by the EPA and not even know it," Johnson says. Or you could be drinking water that contains arsenic at several times the safety limit.

Arsenic, a naturally occurring poison, has been found in several Michigan counties, including Oakland, where about 250,000 county residents drink from wells. Chronic arsenic exposure can lead to cancer and other serious health problems, and may be especially harmful to infants, fetuses, the elderly and those who are already sick.

In 1995 Crouch says she went to the county about her arsenic problem and was placed on the Residential Water Task Force. A year later the group recommended issuing maps indicating wells known to harbor arsenic contamination, reasoning that nearby wells might share the same groundwater supply.

Wells are tested by the state, but only at the owner's request.

Commissioners favored the idea, but County Executive L. Brooks Patterson and his administration refused until late 1997 to have the maps developed.

Thomas Gordon, director of the county human services department, was quoted in the May 4, 1997, Oakland Press as saying, "We've not found any situations in the county yet where our water samples have shown a contamination of arsenic 50 ppb or more."

At that time, county records included several well test results showing 50 ppb or more of arsenic, according to Commissioner Johnson, who says the results were in a health department file she obtained in September 1996. Johnson recently gave the information to the Metro Times.

Joe Lovato, a drinking water investigator for the Department of Environmental Quality, told the Metro Times the state has been sending Oakland County copies of arsenic test results for at least a decade, and that their reports showed that levels in some county wells exceeded 50 ppb as far back as 1988. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, which is using state lab results to help create the county contaminant maps, 14 wells tested above the 50 ppb cutoff between 1988 and April 1997.

When Gordon was asked why he had said there were no test results showing 50 ppb or more, he gave a variety of answers, including, "My quote, if I said it, it was true at that point, regardless of what anyone else says," and later, "I acknowledge I said that and that was the best of my information at that time."

When confronted with the state's policy of giving the test results to the county, Gordon said, "Based on what my staff tells me, that is not accurate." He added, "It's immaterial because that was not brought to my level as a matter of importance. Now that it has been, we are addressing it."

Gordon says his staff told him they were unaware of any such test results. And he suggested that because only 1 percent of Oakland County's wells are known to have more than 50 ppb of arsenic, his staff probably didn't consider it a significant public health threat. Gordon says he doesn't remember when he first learned of the risky arsenic levels.

Johnson says, "I have no idea why they would not tell people the truth."

In a letter from Patterson to Commissioner John McCullough dated May 23, 1997, the county executive says the maps "will unjustly destroy property values. They will create tremendous economic disadvantage by 'alerting' the public to merely speculative dangers. They will undoubtedly be an excellent vehicle for instilling panic and fear. They will help prevent future property tax increases by diminishing, if not destroying, land values."

Patterson, whose staff said he was in Toronto last week, did not return phone calls from the Metro Times about the arsenic matter.

Commissioner Jeff Kingzett says Gordon and other health officials shared Patterson's concern that the arsenic maps would hurt property values.

"It's frightening to think that the leading health officials in Oakland County are looking out for your property values and not your health," he says.

Gordon says the county already helps residents whose wells have tested high for arsenic and others who are concerned are encouraged to have their wells tested.

Gordon says the county already has maps developed by the U.S. Geological Survey showing the presence of arsenic without showing levels. He says well information packets are given to people who have been either building or repairing wells, but not to those with existing wells.

When Crouch moved to Ortonville in 1987, she didn't think to test her well for arsenic. In 1995, a doctor suggested arsenic poisoning and she had her well tested. Although the level was 45.5 ppb -- safe, according to the EPA -- Crouch says she and her family stopped experiencing the symptoms of poisoning after they stopped drinking the water. They now have a water system that eliminates arsenic.

The maps being issued this month, produced by Geological Survey and the University of Michigan-Flint, pinpoint wells that
exceed EPA safety standards for arsenic, nitrate and chloride.

Dark shading will be used to distinguish "high-risk" areas from areas where the contamination did not exceed the EPA limit. But county officials warn that testing has not been extensive enough to rule out contamination in non-shaded areas.

The maps will be available in libraries and local government offices, on the county's Web site, and from the health department, 248-424-7190.

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