Graphic photos vivid reminders of horror of Michigan PBB chemical crisis

In 1973, workers in a mid-Michigan chemical company mistakenly packaged fire retardants as cattle feed, sparking perhaps Michigan’s biggest agricultural disaster of the 20th Century. Before it was over, it sparked political backlash so fierce that protestors hung effigies of state leaders in protest, such as this one in Mio in Oscoda County in 1978. (Photo courtesy of the Michigan Archives, General Photograph Collection)

It took an entire year before scientists discovered the PBB contamination had occurred, and state officials spent years downplaying the gravity of the mistake. Eventually, lawmakers passed a law requiring the slaughter of at least 30,000 cattle, 1.5 million chickens and thousands of pigs and sheep. Many of them were buried in pits like this one in Oscoda and Kalkaska counties. (Photo courtesy of the Michigan Archives, General Photograph Collection)

Residents of Oscoda County were scarred by the mass poisoning, which had affected 9 million Michiganders and been the subject of years of contention over human health effects. So they were leery of state plans to bury the cattle in a nearby pit rather than incinerate them. They went to court, which ultimately contended the clay-lined pit would keep drinking water safe. (Photo courtesy of the Michigan Archives, General Photograph Collection)

Farming communities were decimated as they lost their livelihoods, executing cattle to stop the poison from continuing to spread. While legal battles over how to dispose of the animals continued, farmers were instructed to dismember them and keep them in a freezer, which later ended up in barrels that lined the burial pits. (Photo courtesy of the Michigan Archives, General Photograph Collection)

Dr. Irving Selikoff, a pioneering cancer researcher at the Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York, was interested in coming to Michigan to study how PBB affected human health. But the state Department of Agriculture ignored him until House Democrats invited him to come conduct a study on farmers who had been exposed. His findings linking PBB to ailments in humans, not just cattle, helped tip the scales in Lansing. (Photo courtesy of the Michigan Archives, General Photograph Collection)

Eventually, a bill sponsored by Democratic state Rep. Francis Spaniola passed, significantly limiting the amount of PBB allowed in food and providing loans to farmers who had suffered losses to both their pocketbooks and their health. But many in the agricultural community saw it as too little, too late. (Photo courtesy of the Michigan Archives, General Photograph Collection)

Public officials in Michigan spent years downplaying the scope of the crisis, arguing that few farms were affected, that PBB wasn’t that harmful and even delaying the release of studies that would illustrate how many grocery store products contained the chemical. Gov. William Milliken, pictured here speaking with press and protesters in 1977, was often in open conflict with the heads of state agencies as he pushed for a law limiting PBB. (Photo courtesy of the Michigan Archives, General Photograph Collection)

It’s estimated that nearly every living Michigander at the time consumed some food tainted by PBB. Researchers have found the chemical can be passed down from generation to generation, introducing new ailments to those who didn’t suffer from initial exposure and suggesting the PBB crisis didn’t end with the completion of the mass burials. (Photo courtesy of the Michigan Archives, General Photograph Collection)

Bridge Magazine interviewed nearly 50 residents, activists, scientists and lawmakers and reviewed hundreds of pages of documents on both the PBB crisis of 1973 and the ongoing PFAS chemical threat. Reporters Riley Beggin and Jim Malewitz also crisscrossed the state, speaking to residents in St. Louis still recovering from the PBB crisis and those in Belmont, Parchment, Oscoda, Grand Rapids and other communities affected by the emerging PFAS threat. In addition, the reporters collaborated with Michigan Radio for a special audio report about the crisis. Bridge’s full report is:

Michigan’s biggest chemical disaster of the 20th century began with a small mistake.

Workers at Michigan Chemical Corp. in the mid-Michigan town of St. Louis confused bags of a magnesium oxide cattle feed supplement with bags of a flame retardant called polybrominated biphenyl (PBB), which the company produced and stored in nearly identical bags. The bags, marked as feed supplement but filled with PBB, went to a Farm Bureau feed center near Battle Creek where it was mixed into cattle feed and sent to farms around the state. 

Soon, livestock statewide were succumbing to terrible illnesses: Tens of thousands of animals began dying, bearing offspring with gross deformities, losing their ability to walk straight and shaking uncontrollably. 

But it was nearly a full year after the mixup before PBB was identified as the culprit. By then, nearly all living Michiganders — 9 million people — had consumed the chemical through meat or milk. It was later found to be linked to high levels of exposure to breast and liver cancer and kidney and thyroid problems.

Then-Gov. William Milliken initially listened to officials in the Department of Agriculture and other state agencies who were heavily influenced by agricultural industry interests. State officials didn’t notify the public until seven months after the problem was found and spent years more downplaying the scope of the problem. The federal government, deeming the crisis a Michigan problem, didn’t intervene. 

As fears mounted and researchers studied the chemical’s effects, public pressure built for lawmakers to address the crisis. Milliken ultimately realized he’d been misled and by 1977 advocated for and signed legislation to limit the allowable amount of PBB in food supplies. Farms began quarantining livestock. Thousands were ordered to be executed en masse and deposited in gigantic graves in Kalkaska and later, in Mio in Oscoda County. 

Eventually, legislation passed that would significantly limit allowed amounts of PBB and compensate farmers for their losses. 

But the delays made it hard for many farmers to recover what they’d lost. 

Over the course of a long-term health study, researchers have found that PBB has epigenetic consequences, meaning it can pass along harmful health effects from generation to generation. Many farm families exposed to high levels of PBB over the first few years of the crisis in the 1970s are still living with the consequences. 

Has this story impacted or informed you about Michigan? Please support our work.

No other news outlet is dedicated to providing the same level of in-depth, data-driven coverage of Michigan’s issues as Bridge Magazine. Any donation between now and December 31, will be matched dollar-for-dollar, thanks to our generous partners. Become a Bridge Club member and help our reporters get the resources they need to ramp up coverage during a critical election year. Join the Bridge team today.

Pay with VISA Pay with MasterCard Pay with American Express Donate now

Comment Form

Add new comment

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
CAPTCHA
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Comments

Ken Winter
Mon, 11/18/2019 - 9:36am

Excellent reminder reminder of what lobbyists and bureaucrats can do to endanger public health and the importance a strong press, big and small, plays in Michigan. Story first broke in my weekly Charlevoix Courier and then reprinted in Grand Rapids Press. Gov. Milliken's black eye as Gov. Snyder's Flint Water Crisis.

A country girl
Mon, 11/18/2019 - 1:53pm

One of the saddest days of my life was watching our family friends and hard-working farm neighbors load their entire herd into trucks to be hauled off and slaughtered. This was after months of mysterious deaths and stillborn calves. Our farmer friend would take a cow no longer healthy out into a field with water and feed, hoping to keep whatever was ailing her from contaminating others in the herd. He buried a number of cattle right there on the farm, as it took months for agriculture officials to ascertain just what was going on. The country vet figured it out before they did. Michigan farmers and their families were not served well by the Dept. of Agriculture. The Wexford County (Cadillac) courthouse was then overrun with national media folks when the trial occurred. I was in 4-H at the time and attended a national 4-H convention. None of the other ag-based participants outside of Michigan had ever even heard of PBB. I would like to think our state government learned from that ugly history, but am not sure that we have. That family never really fully recovered from their tragic loss.