Montague — As soon as she was old enough to work, Marjorie Erdman signed on as a cook at the Old Channel Inn. It’s an off-the-beaten-path spot where locals from Montague and nearby Whitehall get together, and it’s where she met Beth Manchesky and Kristy Anderson in the hair-spray days of the mid-1980s.
The trio formed a friendship through years spent on the job — with Erdman and Anderson putting meals together in the kitchen and Manchesky charming and serving guests out front. Even as marriages, new jobs and outside interests pulled at them over the next two decades, the women remained close.
On a day in March 2010, all three were together again at a lunch hosted by Anderson with something in common besides their days at the inn. Anderson, 46, was battling a rare sarcoma and would be dead in a month. Manchesky, 43, had a rare form of mantle cell lymphoma and would be dead within the year. Erdman, while she didn’t know it yet, had developed a rare cancer in her uterus.
Three friends. Three episodes of cancers. Three hysterectomies. Two deaths. All in a town with a frightening history of industrial pollution.
“It makes you wonder,” Erdman said in 2011. “Even my doctor said at one point ‘This is just odd. You seem to have hung around with a circle of friends that seem to have all these problems.’ ”
Others see it as more than odd. Many longtime residents in Montague and Whitehall reel off lists of family members and friends with health issues that they connect with past events in the community. Questions of whether there are higher rates of cancer in the area, and whether those cases add up to a cluster, have been a sore point in the community, occasionally creating tensions among neighbors.
A handful of Michigan communities have seen similar issues — Wilms tumor cases in St. Clair County and breast cancer cases in Midland, Saginaw and Bay counties. In each case, a lack of systematic reporting and funds for follow-up leave quantifying and qualifying the disease clusters as next to impossible.
‘How do you prove it?’
Hepatocellular carcinoma is a cancer of the liver that typically strikes men in their 50s and 60s who have a history of alcohol abuse. In May 2007, it turned up in Zachary Peterson who was all of 15 years old.
For the next 19 months, parents Bob and Christine Peterson watched their fifth child, a precocious redhead, battle for his life with a grace and humor that would inspire much of the community. Montague High School students and faculty rallied around his struggle, and the administrators allowed him to graduate in November 2008, roughly a month before he died.
When considering Zachary’s death, and the question of how such a random cancer could find its way into his son, Bob Peterson teared up.
“There is a good chance it’s from the environment — that either the water or the air or something in our environment (contributed),” he said. “But how do you prove it?”
Six years ago, Claire Schlaff decided to try and answer that question.
Following the 2008 death of her 35-year-old son — from a cancer usually reserved for children — Schlaff and her daughter-in-law began collecting information they hope could help answer lingering health questions in the community. Along with a small group of dedicated volunteers, they kick-started the White Lake Cancer Mapping Project — collecting surveys of people who had lived or worked in the area since 1910 and who had been diagnosed or died from cancer.
The volunteers completed survey forms on more than 1,000 people, which have been turned over to the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment. Researchers will utilize geographic information system mapping to plot out cases over time and see what patterns emerge.
But answers — particularly those desperately sought by families seeking closure and peace of mind — are hard to come by, said Linda Dykema, the Michigan Department of Community Health’s director of environmental health. She has often had to deliver bad news to those looking to draw direct links between environmental factors and the death of a loved one.
“It’s very difficult when you’re talking about exposure to chemicals in the environment and proving they have caused any individual illness,” she said. “There are lots of reasons, starting with the people. Every person comes to the table with different hereditary genetics and disposition to disease. While you can have a group of people exposed to a chemical, all at the same level and same time, each person will react differently.”
Another roadblock in proving what caused a certain cancer or cluster of cancers, Dykema said, is that people are exposed to a wide variety of chemicals every day. That makes pinpointing the offending chemicals extremely difficult.
“C-56 as a compound is extremely toxic. It's extremely mutagenic and it's also fetotoxic. ... It's extremely bad stuff. My only hope is that people exposed to it don't have some kind of detrimental health effects down the road from it 20, 30 or 40 years from now. I think the jury is still out on that.”
James Truchan, former chief of environmental litigation for Michigan's Department of Natural Resources
Exposed to extreme toxins
For those in the White Lake area who fear the health concerns stem from exposure to toxic chemicals, suspicion often leads to Hooker Chemical. James Truchan was among the state officials responsible for investigating the company in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He has remained concerned that issues connected with the C-56 chemical produced at the Montague plant and used for pesticide manufacturing, would crop up in the population.
“C-56 as a compound is extremely toxic,” he said last month. “It’s extremely mutagenic and it’s also fetotoxic … It’s extremely bad stuff. My only hope is that people exposed to it don’t have some kind of detrimental health effects down the road from it 20, 30 or 40 years from now.”
For her part, Erdman said she realizes the difficulties in trying to connect the dots between environmental exposures and the cancers that have plagued her friends and family.
“It compounds trauma with trauma,” she said this month. “It’s almost like you’re sitting here trying to wake up from something. … It compounds the issue when you’re saying ‘This is a problem,’ and they say “No it’s not.’”