OTSEGO, Mich. — Mary Zack and her friends always joked that something must be wrong in Otsego, she said. However they could never figure out exactly what is was.
“There must be something in the water,” they’d say to each other she recalled. “Only because we keep hearing story after story of past classmates getting sick with cancer.”
It's something Zack experienced herself, she said. She was diagnosed with ovarian cancer when she was 17-years-old and her doctor in Kalamazoo was unfamiliar with the kind that she had. So she sought help at Northwestern Hospital in Chicago.
“My gynecological-oncologist said he’s only seen a handful of those types of tumors in his entire career,” Zack said. “And that’s here in Chicago.”
Zack moved to the city after graduating from Michigan State University, she said. She’s 37 years old today, working in medical device sales. However the question of why so many people in her hometown were sick never left her. That was until she recently came across a story about the Kalamazoo River.
“From there I just started researching and I could not believe what I was reading,” Zack said during an interview near her home in Chicago. “I had no idea that the Kalamazoo River was a superfund site.”
Years ago the United States Environmental Protection Agency recognized that the Kalamazoo River area was contaminated with hazardous waste . In 2017, according to the EPA’s website, they announced that it was on the list for “immediate and intense” cleanup.
“I really appreciate the EPA coming in and cleaning up the river of the PCBs,” Zack said, which are also known as toxins. “But if they’re saying that PCBs, the only way to get cancer is from eating the fish, then we need the EPA to start looking at alternative toxic sites.”
Like the old abandoned paper mill in town, she said. Zack researched the paper industry and learned how much pollution their mills and plants emit.
“I’m not even saying that the paper mills did it,” she said. “But if you connect the dots, you look at case after case after case of cancer and the same diseases over 40 years — and that specific industry has been in that community — I’m just asking the EPA to connect the dots for us basically.”
It’s what she’s been doing since late February, connecting the dots. She posted a survey on Facebook asking Otsego residents if they have any health issues. Since then she's received over 500 surveys.
“It’s thyroid cancer. It’s Colon cancer. It’s pancreatic cancer,” she said. “It is cancer case, after cancer case after cancer case.”
It’s people developing Type-1 diabetes in their teens, 20s and 30s she said. None of them having any family history of it. She created the group Justice For Otsego and said it's been hard reading everyone comments, especially ones of children developing brain tumors.
“There were four women in the class of 1998 that had ovarian cancer,” Zack said. “And that’s out of approximately 70 women. I haven’t even reached all 70.”
Zack said a lot of of her passion stems from her sister being diagnosed with cancer when she was just 35 years old. Recently, she's also been battling melanoma.
“I know they say that cancer is genetic,” said Zack. “But when you have dozens of families that have multiple types of cancers something is wrong.”
Since gathering all the information, she’s given the surveys to a variety of health officials including the EPA, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and the Allegan County Health Department. Justice For Ostego hosted their first meeting on March 10 and voiced their concerns to the officials. The county's medical director Dr. Michael Tooker said the department took note and listened to people’s concerns.
“I think it’s extremely important to continue to be all ears,” Tooker said in a phone interview.
The department released a statement Wednesday saying that they’re planning to meet with the residents again on April 14. Since the last one, they’ve done their own research on groundwater quality and issues with the Kalamazoo River, among others. Tooker said they’ll be ready to reveal their findings at that meeting.
Mary Zack, and many others, will be listening.
“A lot of times these small towns kind of get missed,” said Zack. “I’m here to say that that’s not going to happen in Otsego because if we don’t do anything, these stats are going to continue to grow.”