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After 40 years, effect of Michigan’s PBB crisis still not fully known

One of Michigan’s worst agricultural disasters continues to make headlines some 40 years after it decimated 500 Michigan dairy and cattle farms, one Michigan city, and blemished an otherwise nearly spotless career of former Gov. William G. Milliken, Michigan’s longest serving governor. And even today, no one is sure what the effect has been on millions of Michiganders who consumed poison-laced milk, beef and poultry after the accidental statewide distribution of the fire retardant polybrominated biphenyl, or PBB, during 1973.

The disaster started in the early 1970s, when a man-made chemical fire retardant, Firemaster BP-6, produced by the Michigan Chemical Company of St. Louis, Mich. was accidentally mis-bagged and distributed by the Michigan Farm Bureau as livestock feed. The product was then unknowingly distributed to farms across the state and Midwest.

Some 1.5 million chickens, 30,000 cattle, 5,900 pigs and 1,470 sheep consumed the feed and became contaminated with PBBs. More than 500 farms had to be quarantined across Michigan. Additionally, 1.5 million chickens were destroyed, along with over 800 tons of animal feed, 18,000 pounds of cheese, 2,500 pounds of butter, 5 million eggs, and 34,000 pounds of dried milk products. Over 9 million Michiganders consumed potentially tainted meat and milk for a year after the mistake was discovered.

The disaster pitted the popular governor against one of the state’s strongest lobbies, the Michigan Farm Bureau, and eventually led to the downfall of the directors of the state’s Department of Agriculture and Department of Health.

University researchers now suggest lingering health effects remain in countless Michiganders, who may still carry high levels of PBB in their bodies. The Detroit Free Press reports the study will appear this month in the environmental sciences journal, Chemosphere.

“To see the lab reports are both chilling and confirming,” Mason resident Pat Bayer recently told the Free Press. She is one of those whose PBB levels are about 10 times the national average.

One study suggests PBB may be linked to a newborn’s health (showing lower Apgar scores – the first measure of a baby’s health) and possible disruption of human endocrine systems, as well as liver, kidneys and thyroid gland. Research stills falls short of proving the link. However, these studies are ongoing and adverse reproductive-system effects continue to be found in the grandchildren of those who consumed tainted farm products, according to recent reports.

Cattle quickly withered to mere skeletons, died and were buried in specially lined landfills throughout Michigan; some were shipped to Nevada for burial.

A 40-acre Gratiot County landfill had received 269,000 pounds of wastes containing 60 to 70 percent PBBs between 1971 and 1973. Recently drilled test wells show traces of PBBs in the aquifer in all directions. Since 1998, the EPA and state Department of Environmental Quality have been working on the cleanup of the Pine River in St. Louis, which has required over $100 million in funding, including installation of sheet piling, dewatering and dredging operations. Restoration work continues as a fishing ban also remains in place.

At first, state agriculture and health officials denied reports of any mishap. Some farmers had agents of the Department of Agriculture come out to their farms to investigate their suddenly failing herds. The agents would brush the farmers off, telling them it was because of "bad husbandry." The Michigan Milk Messenger, a trade publication, blasted the weekly Charlevoix Courier for its extensive 1973-74 coverage of a neighboring dairy farmer’s dying herd. Meanwhile, other farmers were beginning to report mysterious deformities of their cattle, who were having grotesquely deformed and stillborn calves.

Charlevoix and Antrim County dairy farmers joined together, protesting the newspaper’s coverage and telling the public their milk was safe to drink. They boycoted the newspaper, canceled subscriptions and encouraged retailers and businesses to quit advertising because the stories hurt the local economy and their dairy and meat business.

The Courier eventually uncovered a secret study being conducted on afflicted PBB farm families by the Michigan Departments of Health and Agriculture. State officials, who eventually confirmed the study, told the Courier they didn’t want to influence the study by making it public.

The news made the front page of the Charlevoix Courier and was reprinted in the Grand Rapids Press and other Michigan Booth Newspapers, catching Milliken off-guard and forcing him to hold a hastily called press conference to deal with the issue. As one blogger recently wrote, “The state of Michigan realized there was a problem and they quickly realized the monstrosity of it all. They didn't know how to properly handle the situation as nothing like this had happened before in the United States.”

Politically powerful Farm Bureau president Elton Smith, a Caledonia dairy farmer, called upon the media to report the other side of the farmer’s story on PBB. He also took on Milliken over the acceptable tolerance level of PBB in milk.

“Many of Michigan Farm Bureau's usual allies have seen fit to oppose our positions,” he opined in the bureau’s newspaper, Michigan Farmer, in April 1977.

“The governor supports lower PBB tolerance levels for what we believe are political reasons,” Smith wrote. “The news media, because of its very nature, dwells on the emotional and sensational rather than the scientific and logical. The Legislature also fails to utilize available data to make its decisions, bending instead to the pressure of emotion and politics.”

Smith said he “was disappointed Governor Milliken, who has a long and admirable record of support for Michigan agriculture, disregarded the scientific testimony presented at the PBB tolerance level hearing...”

He was referring to testimony given by the federal Food and Drug Administration’s Dr. Albert Kolbye to the House Committee on Public Health, that evidence showed the present Michigan food supply did not present a risk to public health. The farm leader claimed that Milliken, instead of using the testimony to restore consumer confidence in Michigan farm products, urged U.S. Sen. Donald Riegle to persuade the FDA to lower tolerance levels.

Research continues at Emory University in Atlanta with the Michigan Department of Community Health from funding that comes partially from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

The Detroit Free Press reports “researchers hope that their latest findings – high levels of PBB remain in Michiganders’ bodies and the link between PBB levels and newborns’ Apgar scores – will trigger to continue the work.”

Mason’s Pat Bayer says they can’t stop looking at the PBB issue as it’s too important.

Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan. Bridge does not endorse any individual guest commentary submission. If you are interested in submitting a guest commentary, please contact Ron French. Click here for details and submission guidelines.

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