Graphic photos vivid reminders of horror of Michigan PBB chemical crisis
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.
Michigan Environment Watch
Michigan Environment Watch examines how public policy, industry, and other factors interact with the state’s trove of natural resources.
- See full coverage
- Share tips and questions with Bridge environment reporter Kelly House
Michigan Health Watch is made possible by generous financial support from:
Our generous Environment Watch underwriters encourage Bridge Michigan readers to also support civic journalism by becoming Bridge members. Please consider joining today.
See what new members are saying about why they donated to Bridge Michigan:
- “In order for this information to be accurate and unbiased it must be underwritten by its readers, not by special interests.” - Larry S.
- “Not many other media sources report on the topics Bridge does.” - Susan B.
- “Your journalism is outstanding and rare these days.” - Mark S.
If you want to ensure the future of nonpartisan, nonprofit Michigan journalism, please become a member today. You, too, will be asked why you donated and maybe we'll feature your quote next time!