Otsego cancer concerns prompt response from health officials

Mary Zack, who suffered from ovarian cancer at the age of 17, is raising concerns about cancer and other diseases she says may be affected Otsego and other areas nearby. (Photo Courtesy: Mary Zack)

"There are concerns from a growing number of citizens that live in or have lived in Otsego that there may be some contamination in the area that may have led to a lot of health problems," said Allegan County Medical Director, Dr. Richard Tooker, responding to concerns raised by a group recently started on Facebook, Justice For Otsego.

The social media group is founded by Mary Zack, 37, who grew up in Otsego, but now works in Chicago.

At the age of 17, Zack was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, a rare diagnosis for such a young age.

At the age of 35, her sister was diagnosed with breast cancer, and has since been dealing with melanoma cancer.

According to Zack, there is no history of cancer in her family.

Since the group's founding two weeks ago, it has attracted more than 600 members sharing stories of cancer, hysterectomies and other diseases. The group also mentions PCBs used in Otsego paper mills and dumping that some say might have occurred in the 1970s and 1980s. Due to all the interest generated by Justice For Otsego, Zack is organizing a public meeting to be held at 10 a.m. on Saturday, March 10 at the Otsego District Library.

Zack has also put together several binders of research and asked Otsego residents to privately share their diagnoses.

"So many current and past residents have come forward with health issues ranging from cancer, reproductive, endocrine or immune disorders since the use of PCBs in the paper mills," Zack wrote on the page.

Over at the Allegan County Health Department, Tooker says representatives from the Health Department will be at Saturday's meeting, along with representatives from the EPA and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

Tooker says he is still looking over the research and data provided by Zack, while adding there's enough he sees to take a closer look.

"One thing that seems to initially seem of interest to anybody in the health field is the younger age of the cancer affected individuals," he said.

Tooker noted that Zack's research is not scientific or peer reviewed.

The Medical Director said the meeting will be a time for all health organizations in attendants to listen to the stories of those with family members potentially affected by cancer and other diseases.

"The final outcome of the meeting will be to identify what the next steps are," he said.

Tooker acknowledged that within the group, there seems to be a lot of concern about actions taken in the past in and around Otsego potentially affecting public health today.

"There's worry from Otsego residents about former landfills, legally and illegally, and whether there's been a lot of cover up of illegal dumping," he said.

Tooker said there is still much potential research to be done.

"One of the first rules of public health is that you never disregard a public concern," Tooker said.

As for Zack, founder of Justice For Otsego, she says she is in this for the long haul.

"The time is now for the truth to come out," she wrote on the group's Facebook page. "We don't know what's causing all of this heartbreak and suffering,"

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