Residents of Kalamazoo, Michigan say their city has always had a smell problem.
“Everybody was like, ‘What’s this odor? Where’s it coming from?’” Brandi Crawford, who lived in the city from 2011 to 2020, told The Daily Beast.
Crawford said she developed asthma after she moved to the city’s north side in 2012. A more industrial area of Kalamazoo, residents there say the odor is noticeably worse.
“There’s this factory, I feel like it’s kind of too close to people’s houses,” Crawford recalled telling her doctor at the time. “I wonder if that’s why I’m getting sicker.”
The factory she was referring to is a paper mill on the northeast side of the city belonging to Graphic Packaging International (GPI), one of the world’s largest manufacturers of paperboard, foodservice packaging, and other paper goods.
It’s also the subject of a class action lawsuit filedWednesday on behalf of Kalamazoo residents, who are alleging that GPI has been knowingly polluting the city’s air with toxic gas for years, while the city does nothing to stop it.
Crawford said that’s why she moved out after nine years.
“We got major colleges here, where people don’t even know their kids are getting poisoned,” she said.
The 157-page lawsuit lists both GPI and the City of Kalamazoo as defendants, accusing them of assault, battery and wrongful deaths after plaintiffs reported “severe eye irritations, wheezing, coughing spasms, shortness of breath, respiratory failures, asthma attacks, skin rashes, chronic headaches, COPD [chronic obstructive pulmonary disease], kidney damage, nervous system adversity, seizures, cancers, loss of sleep, anxiety attacks, chronic nasal leaking,” and other ailments.
Lifelong Kalamazoo resident Mary Collins attributes her 2-year-old grandson’s asthma to the GPI mill.
“He’s been sick since he was born,” Collins said. “Coughing, and his nose has been running, literally, for two years.”
Her younger grandson’s odd sleeping habit has her raising eyebrows, too.
“When he sleeps, he snores—he stops breathing,” she said. “What baby do you know that has sleep apnea?”
But Collins said that despite countless trips to the doctor, she’s still left with no answers about her grandkids’ mysterious health woes.
“First they said it was mold, then the doctor said it was allergies,” she said. “It ain’t just a virus or a common cold. Everybody on the north side has a common cold?”
While she’s experienced symptoms similar to her grandchildren’s, Collins said the ordeal has taken the biggest toll on her mental health.
“This anxiety, because you don’t know how this really is going to affect you,” she said. “I’m so depressed, I don’t want to do nothing in my house. When you turn on the heat, you smell it worse. The kids can’t even go outside. I buy my grandkids pools and swings, and they can’t even go outside to enjoy it.”
According to the suit, the main culprit is hydrogen sulfide, a foul-scented toxic gas that has been recorded in extraordinarily high levels around the GPI paper mill. Its notorious rotten egg odor is precisely what the residents say they’re smelling all over the city.
David Benac, a city resident and history professor at Western Michigan University, says it’s been like that for about two decades.
“Graphic Packaging got control of that facility about 20 years ago,” he said. “It was only a couple of years after that public comments at a city commission meeting started showing up about the smell. So they’ve been a problem for a good, solid 20 years at this point.”
The EPA states that 1.4 parts per billion (ppb) of hydrogen sulfide in the air is the daily exposure limit that can be inhaled “without an appreciable risk of deleterious effects during a lifetime.” Essentially, while research is limited, 1.4 ppb is the minimum risk level for exposure becoming potentially dangerous.
On Tuesday night, hydrogen sulfide sensors at the mill—of which readings were made public earlier this year, as mandated by the state—showed levels as high as 33 ppb.
It’s known that acute human exposure to hydrogen sulfide can cause nausea, headaches, delirium, poor memory, tremors, convulsions and other health issues.
However, little information is available about the health risks for chronic exposure.
But a long-awaited report from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, released in May after nearly three years of analysis, confirmed what residents have been suspecting for over a decade—that the gas is indeed a health hazard.
The environmental odors may cause nausea, headaches, insomnia and irritation of the nose, eyes and throat, the report said. It also issued a recommendation: “For community members with existing respiratory problems or sensitivity to odors, MDHHS recommends staying indoors and avoiding outdoor exercise or physical exertion when an environmental odor is present.”
That suggestion infuriated some of the city’s residents, many of whom have been complaining about the gas and their alleged resulting health issues for well over a decade.
But despite years of complaints, Benac said the broader citywide movement to fix the problem is rather new.
“There really seems to only have been any action in the past two or three years, precipitated by the expansion, which made it much worse,” he said.
That $600 million expansion to GPI’s Kalamazoo paper mill was completed in 2021, with near-unanimous support from the city commission in every step of the process, according to the lawsuit.
“The expansion was subsidized by the city, the county, and the state government, on a couple of different occasions to the tune of a couple hundred million in tax breaks over time,” Benac added. “And this is well after Graphic Packaging had a long record of violations both for environmental and worker safety issues.”
Benac said the expansion made residents from outside the north side start to experience the effects of the gas, too.
“Kalamazoo is a really badly segregated community, with almost the entirety of the Black population of the city living on the north side,” Benac said. “I live right next to downtown on the west side, so I do experience it to the point that I’ll get headaches when I’m out walking the dog—my wife, her lips will burn from it—but it’s nothing in comparison to people who live closer.”
Collins believes that’s exactly why it’s taken so long to have their concerns heard, despite constant pleas from her fellow north-siders.
“I feel like we’re minorities to everybody. They really don’t care about us,” she said. “As long as it’s not out there in Portage [a city just south of Kalamazoo with a whiter, wealthier population] and all that, they don’t care.”
Collins and Crawford are both listed as plaintiffs in the lawsuit, which alleges 33 various counts against more than a dozen defendants including Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, state Sen. Sean McCann and Kalamazoo Mayor David Anderson.
The City of Kalamazoo declined to comment on a pending legal matter. Graphic Packaging issued the following statement to The Daily Beast in response to the suit: “We are currently reviewing the lawsuit and we will not comment on pending litigation outside of court. As a general matter, we will defend ourselves against any false and misleading claims. We are proud of our work and our record in Kalamazoo and take very seriously our responsibility as a good neighbor, community partner and employer to 750 people at our Kalamazoo mill.
“We have invested millions of dollars in facility improvements and monitoring to address environmental concerns, and we will continue to build on those enhancements alongside city leaders and state and federal regulators to promote the health and well-being of our neighbors in Kalamazoo. For more information about our ongoing efforts, please visit KalamazooRecycles.com.”