Tests are needed to determine whether DPI odors pose a health risk, expert says News, Sports, Work

News Photo by Steve Schulwitz The Decorative Panels International plant in Alpena sits on the banks of the Thunder Bay River and Lake Huron on Monday. The plant is the source of an unpleasant odor that has angered residents. On Monday, the Alpena City Council went into closed session to discuss possible litigation over the plant and the smell.

ALPENA — Future tests may help residents of Alpena’s north side know whether to worry about their long-term health.

A state citation ordered Alpena business Decorative Panels International to correct the source of odors that inspectors called “overpowering and intolerable.” Residents living near the plant say the smells made them sick.

DPI officials last week told the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy that the company has taken steps to mitigate the odor coming from its sewage lagoon, including adding river water and aerating and recirculating existing water.

“There is no reported evidence of or link to illness in the community as a result of odors at the site,” said Darryl Clendenen, DPI’s general manager, in a statement to The News.

Environmental officials have not yet tested the air to see if it could cause long-term health problems.

Odors and the chemicals that cause them can cause harmful health symptoms, but scientists have had difficulty linking odors to actual illness that won’t go away when the smell is removed, said Brandon Reed, a toxicologist at the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. Environmental health.

The only way to determine the safety of the air around a facility like DPI is through air sampling, he said.

“We definitely wouldn’t trust our noses,” Reid said.


When residents met with Alpena Mayor Matt Walligora last month to voice complaints about the smell on the north side, several said the strong odors trigger headaches and asthma or other underlying ailments.

Waligora encouraged residents to take their health concerns to their local health department.

District Health Department No. 4 told The News that the department “has no programmatic or jurisdictional authority in this area” and that oversight of DPI-related matters rests entirely with EGLE.

Alpena residents continue to report foul odors emanating from DPI to EGLE’s pollution emergency hotline, including complaints made last week, EGLE spokeswoman Jill Greenberg said.

EGLE has received 77 odor-related complaints from the Alpena area since July 1. Not all of the complaints are about DPI.

The agency has received several complaints specifically reporting alleged odor-related public health concerns, Greenberg said.

Many residents who called the hotline said the smell — which one caller described as “sulfur, sewage and death mixed together” — made them sick.

After completing its review of DPI’s response, EGLE will decide on next steps, including the possibility of air testing, Greenberg said.

DHHS has not tested DPI’s air, but is working with EGLE on DPI-related odor issues, spokeswoman Lynn Sutphin said.

The smell of rotting vegetation identified by EGLE inspectors as coming from the DPI lagoon has been identified elsewhere as coming from sulfur-containing chemicals. These chemicals require special sampling and must be analyzed very quickly after collection, Sutphin said.

The agency does not know when such testing might take place at DPI, but will share the results publicly, Sutphin said.


As a specialist who goes to sites where the state has concerns about environmental pollution and health effects, Reed often hears from residents who want to know if unpleasant and annoying odors will cause long-term harm to their health.

Most symptoms associated with unpleasant odors, such as headaches or nausea, go away when the odor dissipates, whether the reaction stems from the odor itself or a chemical underlying the odor, he said.

People have very different levels of sensitivity to odors, and experts assessing the risk posed by sites like DPI have a hard time doing so based on people’s reactions, Reed said.

A chemical’s potential to harm humans through odor depends on the toxicological properties of the chemical “and how much of that chemical reaches the person who smells it,” Reid said.

A strong, unpleasant smell does not mean a chemical is toxic or will cause long-lasting effects, and scientists often cannot identify a chemical by its smell because some chemicals smell the same or have no smell at all, he said.

Saying his company deeply regrets the inconvenience caused by foul odors from the lagoon, Clendenen, DPI’s general manager, encouraged residents who feel unwell to consult with health care providers.

“We are unwavering in our commitment to eradicating the odor emanating from the lagoon in the future and sincerely hope this matter is resolved soon,” Clendenen said.

Residents can report environmental concerns to the EGLE Pollution Emergency Alert System at 800-292-4706.

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