KALAMAZOO, MI -- The concentration of toxic gas found around a Kalamazoo neighborhood is a public health hazard, according to a long-awaited report from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

The report was released Monday, May 8, after nearly three years of analysis.

Levels of hydrogen sulfide (H2S) found on the Northside of Kalamazoo near the Graphic Packaging International paper mill and the Kalamazoo wastewater plant were analyzed, the report says.

The Environmental Protection Agency says hydrogen sulfide levels above 1.4 parts per billion can cause health problems with long-term exposure.

Sensors near the two properties -- east of North Pitcher Street and north of North Edwards Street -- showed concentrations regularly above 1.4 parts per billion, from September 2019 to December 2021.

“Hydrogen sulfide was measured at levels of chronic exposure concern, meaning long-term exposure at the level we’re measuring will lead to persistent nasal irritation in some individuals,” MDHHS Toxicology and Assessment Section Manager Marcus Wasilevich told MLive/Kalamazoo Gazette about the report.

State officials said sensors can pick up other compounds. But their analysis concludes the readings are attributable to hydrogen sulfide, an offensive-smelling, colorless, toxic gas.

State health officials began the study in August 2020. The analysis looks at 33 months of data, MDHHS said.

The 142-page report is inconclusive in some areas, but confirms what people have wondered for years -- that the gas is a health hazard.

Long-term exposure to hydrogen sulfide brings an increased risk of nasal irritation, even after the person stops breathing in the gas, the report said.

Wasilevich said the EPA defines a lifetime exposure as 10% of a person’s life, and the term generally means several years of consistent exposure.

“That’s what we’re seeing in the Kalamazoo data. We’re consistently above that 1.4 parts per billion mark,” he said.

There is no risk for short-term exposure, he said, but the levels are concerning for a chronic exposure.

“Chronic risk means if you have long-term, consistent exposures at those levels, it might lead to some sort of health impact,” Wasilevich said.

Related: Pollution in Kalamazoo air for years has experts concerned about health long-term

H2S is often strong enough to smell. People with asthma or respiratory problems should go inside when they smell odors, the report states.

“Be aware of what is influencing you,” Wasilevich said. “If the odor is making you feel ill, shut the windows. Stay indoors on days that have a lot of odors.”

MDHHS also recommends people with asthma take their control and rescue medications. Residents with questions about their health should talk with their doctor, the agency said.

Hydrogen sulfide “should continue to be investigated” and sources should be mitigated, MDHHS recommended. The report recommends more monitoring and sampling for volatile organic compounds to get a better idea of ambient concentrations and seasonal variations.

The city wastewater treatment plant and the paper mill are both sources of the gas, the report states, and sensors at both locations have seen levels exceeding 1.4 parts per billion.

At a sensor at Gull Road and Riverview Drive, the average level was about 19 parts per billion in 2020, and about 14 parts per billion in 2021. The monthly average has not dropped below 4.6 parts per billion since it went live in September 2019.

As shown below in data compiled by MLive through August 2022, levels remained 10 times higher than the EPA’s benchmark for concern.

Kalamazoo hydrogen sulfide data at Gull and Riverview

City of Kalamazoo data on hydrogen sulfide levels found in the air. Data from September 2019 to March 2022 is 1-minute data averaged by month. Data from April 2022 to September 2022 is 15-minute sample data averaged by month.

Graphic Packaging released its live hydrogen sulfide data publicly for the first time last week, as mandated by the state.

Equipment problems hampered some data collection. Data from July, August and December 2021 collected at Krom and Prouty Park was deemed “unreliable” due to malfunctioning equipment.

The neighborhood park on the Northside is where the highest concentration of H2S was detected in September 2021.

Similar problems wiped out data from the Northside Neighborhood Association sensor on North Park Street. Equipment “tampering and theft” rendered all data “unreliable” after May 2020 at Verburg Park, directly across the street from both facilities.

Questions remain about asthma

The report analyzed asthma data for three ZIP codes in the area. Here’s how adult asthma prevalence in these areas compares to the state average:

  • ZIP codes 49001, 49006 and 49008: 14.8% asthma rate
  • ZIP codes 49004, 49007 and 49048: 13.4% asthma rate
  • Statewide average: 11.0% asthma rate

While the ZIP codes on the Northside are higher than the Michigan average, the difference is not statistically significant, per the study.

In the asthma analysis, ZIP codes were analyzed as a group, not individually.

Three ZIP codes analyzed -- 49004, 49007 and 49048 -- did have higher asthma hospitalization rates over a period of years compared to neighboring ZIP codes where Graphic Packaging and wastewater plant emissions did not significantly penetrate.

MLive/Kalamazoo Gazette inquired why the study did not include an analysis of asthma data on a census tract level.

“We are going to do some follow-up analyses, and if there is a better way to conceptualize the geography, we certainly will explore that,” Senior Epidemiologist Elizabeth Wasilevich, who works in the office of the director of the agency, told MLive/Kalamazoo Gazette. She is married to the other source in this story, Marcus Wasilevich.

Elizabeth Wasilevich said researchers chose the area, in part, because they wanted enough data to produce a statistically significant result.

“We couldn’t have gone into a smaller geographic area,” she said. Researchers could not look at a portion of a ZIP code, she said.

Dr. David Ansell, a physician and social epidemiologist who is vice president of community health equity at Rush University Medical Center, authored a report in 2020 that said air quality in the 49007 ZIP code is below the U.S. average.

Asthma prevalence among neighborhood adults, between 2012 and 2014, was the highest in Kalamazoo. Asthma hospitalizations were also much higher there than in all other Kalamazoo neighborhoods, Ansell’s analysis found.

Areas facing environmental impacts from Graphic Packaging and the wastewater plant could be small, Ansell said, suggesting census-tract level data to do the study. Ansell said he believes it is flawed to use ZIP code level data to try to study asthma prevalence related to air quality in this case.

Expanding the geographic area too much could mean missing a signal, he said.

MLive/Kalamazoo Gazette requested the raw data MDHHS used to examine asthma prevalence. The agency said the raw data will not be given out, to protect privacy.

Future analyses by the MDHHS could consider census tract data, a department spokesperson said.

Because the results are based on surveillance data, not epidemiological study, the authors said they “cannot indicate” a causal relationship to any environmental contaminants.

“This analysis only represents a descriptive review of asthma prevalence and hospitalizations,” it states.

A community townhall is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Thursday, May 18, at Mt. Zion Baptist Church, 120 Roberson St., to discuss the results and answer questions.

An additional session goes from 1 to 3:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 24, at the Urban Alliance, 1009 E. Stockbridge Ave.

City of Kalamazoo wastewater treatment plant

The city of Kalamazoo's wastewater treatment plant on Sept. 16, 2022.

For more information, call the MDHHS Division of Environmental Health Hotline at 800-648-6942. Visit Michigan.gov/EnviroHealth and “Kalamazoo Health Consultation” to view the entire health consultation.

Monday morning, before the report was made public, Graphic Packaging said it would not comment on the report yet, because it had not seen the report.

The full report is available, below.

Reporter Garret Ellison contributed to this report.

Read more:

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