Toxic pollutants from industry have been accumulating in the Great Lakes for more than a century -- is it
okay to eat fish pulled from their waters? The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says it's risky enough to
merit specific warnings, especially for women and children. In 1996, however, the Michigan Department of
Community Health contradicted the EPA, and announced that there are far fewer safety concerns associated with
eating Great Lakes fish.
In one example, the EPA warned people that because of contamination from PCBs, an industrial pollutant,
they should limit their consumption of coho and chinook salmon from Lake Michigan to one meal per month.
The state, however, said salmon were safe and such warnings were unneccessary.
Then earlier this year, under pressure from the federal government and the public, Michigan authorities
rescinded their position. The state now formally recommends that pregnant women and children eat only one
salmon meal per month.
This was a rare setback in the Engler Administration's targeted intent to set new trends in managing toxic
substances. Perhaps no area of the state's environmental and public health program has undergone more
Moving in Reverse
In the 1960s and 1970s, Michigan led the nation in addressing the problem of pollution from toxics.
Michigan was the first state to ban PCBs and DDT, a pesticide that causes birth defects, and was the first state
in the Midwest to establish a comprehensive program to clean up toxic wastes.
In the 1990s, in addition to being the only state in the Great Lakes region to downgrade health warnings
about toxic substances in fish, Michigan was the first state to allow more contamination to remain at polluted sites,
and shifted much of the cost of cleanups from business owners to taxpayers. (See "Polluter Payday," page 37.)
Many civic and business leaders praise the Engler Administration for reducing pollution control costs.
Meanwhile, environmental organizations and some urban neighborhood groups say the policy changes --
especially weakening of the Polluter Pay law -- are unfair to taxpayers, raise risks to public health, and diminish the
incentive for business owners to better manage waste from their industrial plants.
Michigan Balks at Tougher Federal Air Standards
The Administration began its work to change state policy on toxic substances in 1992 when it established
the Michigan Environmental Science Board (MESB), a panel of researchers to advise regulatory agencies on
scientific issues. Its rulings, as the fish advisories issue illustrates, typically become incorporated in new state
policy. Michigan is the first state to establish a scientific advisory panel with such overarching influence.
The MESB is chaired by Dr. Lawrence Fischer, a risk management specialist at Michigan State University.
Dr. Fischer has gained national attention for his conviction that the risks to human health from exposure to
toxic substances are overstated. Under his leadership, the board has provided a grounding for the Administration
to weaken toxic cleanup laws.
David Ladd, the Governor's environmental advisor, praised the MESB for "injecting sound science into
the decision-making process. I think it should be a model for the rest of the country."
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