Poisoned Michigan: How weak laws and ignored history enabled PFAS crisis
In 1973, an accident at a chemical plant in the small town of St. Louis in the middle of Michigan’s mitten triggered one of the largest mass poisonings in American history.
Before the crisis was over, nearly the entire state population – about 9 million residents – ate food contaminated with a toxic fire retardant called PBB that workers erroneously mixed into cattle feed.
It was a nightmare that Francis “Bus” Spaniola remembers well: confused residents with unexplained illnesses; farmers facing bankruptcy after thousands of pigs, chickens and cattle from more than 500 farms were executed en masse and protesters hanging state leaders in effigy. A state representative at the time, Spaniola toured Michigan’s dairyland and spoke to devastated farmers.
His companion through the chaos: his 18-year-old son, Tony, who shadowed him in 1977 as state lawmakers investigated the catastrophe.
Neither Spaniola thought they’d see anything like it again. Too many lives turned upside down. Too much public outrage. Too much money spent cleaning up the mess.
But more than 40 years later, both hear echoes of that dark history. The rumblings started in 2016 when residents were alerted to drinking water contamination in Oscoda, where Tony owns a summer home in the Lake Huron beach town near the closed Wurtsmith Air Force base.
Michigan regulators told Tony Spaniola, now an attorney, his home was in the “zone of concern” for persistent chemicals called PFAS that have upended life in Oscoda — infiltrating drinking water wells and prompting warnings not to eat certain fish and deer.
Experts have linked the chemicals — used in everything from clothes to cookware — to a litany of ailments including cancers. State regulators have since detected high levels of PFAS, short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, in at least 74 groundwater sites statewide. They’re so ubiquitous surveys suggest that trace amounts of PFAS flow in the blood of nearly every American.
“It’s almost spooky. I remember … sitting in the front row at a meeting in Oscoda thinking, ‘I’ve seen this film before,’” Tony Spaniola told Bridge Magazine.
“I was a spectator before, and now I’m in it. I’m impacted.”
To be sure, Michigan’s PFAS crisis doesn’t precisely mirror the PBB catastrophe of the 1970s. The PBB crisis spiraled from one source of contamination, while many are to blame for PFAS pollution. The PBB crisis was largely contained to Michigan and resulted in immediate illnesses to cattle, while PFAS are emerging as a national problem and their long-term effects aren’t yet known.
Bridge Magazine spoke to nearly four dozen impacted residents, activists, scientists, public officials and others and reviewed hundreds of pages of documents on both crises. Their stories show that many lessons from the PBB crisis have gone unheeded, as state and federal regulators remain ill-equipped to respond to large-scale chemical poisonings, much less prevent one.
Bridge has found:
- Neither the federal nor state governments have robust systems to prevent contamination, allowing manufacturers to make and distribute chemicals until they are proven harmful, rather than assuring safety beforehand. That increases the risk of exposure to dangerous chemicals for decades before detection.
- Government bureaucracy remains painfully slow to launch investigations. Michigan regulators took years to search for contamination in both the PBB and PFAS crises, despite ample warnings from citizens and government officials.
- Taxpayers often suffer the costs of cleanup due to bureaucratic delays and litigation that can take years to determine culpability. In St. Louis, that bill has eclipsed $180 million and will likely climb to $500 million because Michigan failed to secure long-term funding and the owner of a chemical plant declared bankruptcy. Similar costs are likely for the PFAS crisis.
- Most action only comes when residents – not regulators – call for change. Nearly a half-century after the PBB crisis began, St. Louis residents are still watchdogging the cleanup around the shuttered chemical plant that triggered the PBB crisis. Government action has often come because residents made discoveries or went to court themselves. St. Louis residents say today’s PFAS victims must prepare for years of activism if they hope to see their communities fully cleaned up.
Michigan is now trying to play catchup. Since late 2017, the state has earned kudos from environmental groups and health experts as one of the most aggressive in the nation at detecting and researching PFAS sites. State leaders have called on Washington, D.C., to regulate PFAS nationwide (thus far to no avail), and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in October proposed regulations to limit PFAS in drinking water, something only four other states have enacted. The state Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) has set up a unit to expedite response times to the next contaminant to surface in Michigan’s waters, and it’s fielding calls from other states hoping to learn from the agency’s efforts, a spokesman told Bridge.
A civil trial in which the state is attempting to get shoe manufacturer Wolverine World Wide to pay for the costs of its contamination in west Michigan is set for Jan. 8.
Many who spoke to Bridge are grateful for the state’s newfound attention to the crisis. But they also noted that even regulators’ best efforts are still reactionary. Nearly every person affected by PFAS or PBB who spoke with Bridge questioned why the government allows companies to use chemicals that haven’t been proven safe, and they called for fundamental changes to industrial chemical regulations to prevent similar episodes. That’s a lesson the state and federal government should have learned decades ago, experts said.
"Here we are again: the same thing,” said Robert Delaney, a geologist who discovered widespread PFAS in 2010 while working for the since-renamed Michigan Department of Environmental Quality in Oscoda.
While Michigan and other states have some of their own chemical regulations, federal law is the biggest driver of what chemical companies can or cannot manufacture — and what chemicals the public will be exposed to.
Reviews of chemical risks are complicated and resource-intensive, so state regulators typically look to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to do much of that work.
For most of the country’s history, the federal government did not require chemical companies to prove their products safe before selling them. A landmark 2016 law changed that practice in theory, but the EPA’s implementation of the overhaul has proved contentious under President Donald Trump, who has appointed chemical industry insiders to oversee the program.
The EPA regulates chemicals under the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), which then-President Gerald Ford signed as Michigan was dealing with the fallout from the PBB disaster. Around that time, experts were examining the health of farmers exposed to the fire retardant.
“If we had a strong toxic substances control act, this never would have happened,” Dr. Thomas Corbett, a University of Michigan anesthesiologist who is considered a whistleblower in the PBB saga, told the New York Times two months before Ford signed the law.
Since then, though, national health experts have come to view the law as ineffective in preventing harmful chemicals from entering the market. The law essentially grandfathered in 62,000 chemicals already in use, assuming them safe unless the EPA could prove they posed an “unreasonable risk” and that the benefits of regulation were greater than the costs to industry and the economy.
In 2013, the Government Accountability Office reported that the EPA had banned only five substances under the law, lacking the resources and information to declare tens of thousands of others unsafe.
For most of its history, the 1976 law required manufacturers to notify the EPA of new chemicals, and the agency had 90 days to determine whether they were unsafe. But the law didn’t require companies to submit certain health or safety data, meaning the EPA rarely took action on new chemicals.
Congress reformed the law in 2016, requiring the EPA to review risks of new chemicals and expanded its power to restrict chemicals, even if companies provided too little information. Under the Trump administration, though, the EPA has narrowed the scope of its safety evaluations by considering only risks of direct contact to chemicals. That excluded risks associated with the chemical’s presence in the air, ground or drinking water, for example.
Jon Corley, spokesman for the American Chemistry Council, the leading national industry organization for chemical companies, said the 2016 reform was “essential to ensuring protections for human health and the environment, while enabling our industry to continue to innovate, create jobs, and grow the economy.”
“EPA continues to consistently meet key TSCA deadlines and requirements. Meeting those statutory deadlines demonstrates EPA’s commitment to effective implementation of the law,” Corley told Bridge via email.
John Dulmes, executive director of the Michigan Chemistry Council, said “the safety of chemicals and the public’s trust is a hugely important issue for our industry.” Existing regulations have been improved over time and are now “able to better address potential concerns around chemical safety.”
Michigan’s toxic history
The PBB crisis started quietly.
The 54-acre campus of Michigan Chemical Corp. manufactured a variety of products along the Pine River in St. Louis. Among them: the fire retardant polybrominated biphenyl (PBB). In May 1973, the company ran out of pre-printed bags for its products. That led workers to package PBB and a cattle feed supplement in nearly identical bags, distinguished only by the products’ handwritten trade names: FireMaster and NutriMaster.
The similarities sparked confusion, leading workers to accidentally send as many as 20 50-pound bags of FireMaster to a Farm Bureau feed center near Battle Creek. There, employees unknowingly mixed the toxic PBB into feed that farmers across Michigan would use.
Even as Michigan cattle and other livestock succumbed to gruesome deaths and birthed deformed offspring, a federal scientist didn’t identify PBB as the culprit until April 1974, nearly a year after the mixup.
By then, nearly every Michigander had consumed PBB through meat and milk. Researchers have since linked high levels of exposure to breast and liver cancer, kidney and thyroid problems.
State and federal regulators spent years more downplaying the problem. Researchers have found some PBB symptoms may be passed down from generation to generation, affecting the urinary and reproductive systems of children and grandchildren of those originally exposed.
But that wasn’t the only chapter in Michigan Chemical’s toxic legacy: The company, owned for many years by Velsicol, had dumped industrial waste including now-banned DDT insecticide into the Pine River that flowed through town since the 1930s.
Contamination from that plant has plagued St. Louis and its Pine River for decades.
While the plant still operated in the 1960s, the Pine River was barren of fish, stinking of chlorine from dumping at the plant. Anxious parents herded children away from a football field, flooded in 1986, with tainted water. Just a few years ago, birds dropped dead after eating DDT-contaminated worms. Through it all, residents were diagnosed with cancers and other ailments they suspect was caused by the pollution. The EPA is still cleaning up the contamination under its Superfund program in a project expected to stretch another decade.
After the PBB crisis abated, Michigan lawmakers took some steps to ensure an identical situation wouldn’t recur. Four years after the mixup, Bus Spaniola shepherded into law a bill to lower the limit of PBB in dairy cattle, which the agriculture industry opposed.
The state also formed a Toxic Substances Control Commission to investigate new and emerging chemical contaminants, but it was dissolved in the late 1980s.
The emerging threat
Nearly 40 years after the PBB crisis, Delaney, the state regulator, discovered widespread PFAS contamination at the Wurtsmith base in Oscoda.
Delaney had sounded the alarm about PFAS to his bosses at the state in 2010. That spurred studies of fish and eventually surface water. But the response was too slow and too limited for Delaney. He publicly aired his concerns in 2017, just a month before Gov. Rick Snyder launched a statewide, multi-agency response to PFAS.
That led to criticisms that Michigan should have acted sooner – a critique appreciated by Heidi Grether, DEQ director from 2016 to 2018.
But scientists knew less about the chemicals’ dangers years ago, and the Legislature had granted her agency only so many resources, she said. “If you do [focus on PFAS], what are you not going to do?”
And over the last two years, PFAS has proven to be Michigan’s most widespread chemical contamination crisis since the PBB disaster.
The most studied types of PFAS are considered harmful at extremely low thresholds — the two most common types have a federal health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion for drinking water, the equivalent of 70 grains of sand in an Olympic-size swimming pool. But experts widely consider that threshold too lax.
Each of the states that have finalized their own drinking water standards have chosen lower thresholds, and Whitmer’s proposal is similar to those. For two of the most studied types of PFAS, the CDC has found minimal risk level to be 7 parts per trillion for a chemical known as PFOS and 11 parts per trillion for another called PFOA.
Research is still evolving, but experts have linked the chemicals to cancer, liver and thyroid problems and hormone and immune system deficiency.
The term “PFAS” encompasses some 5,000 non-stick, waterproof and stain-resistant compounds that can also serve as fire retardants. The chemicals have been used in packaging and all sorts of everyday products. They may have been used or discarded at as many as 11,300 Michigan fire stations, landfills, industrial sites, military bases, airports and other locations, according to state estimates.
Unlike some other chemicals, PFAS don’t break down in the soil or water, meaning the contamination will linger for decades — hence their nickname: “forever chemicals.”
PFAS are still being studied, but their effects are already felt statewide. In Oscoda, resident Greg Cole said he was forced to get drinking water from the spigot behind the township hall for months after his well was found to be contaminated and before health officials provided a water cooler.
Across the state in Belmont near Grand Rapids, Jennifer Carney spent years plagued with headaches, dizziness and trouble walking, only to have it clear up after she stopped drinking contaminated water. Her neighbor Sandy Wynn-Stelt’s husband died of liver cancer just a year before officials found PFAS levels 750 times the national average in her blood.
Companies in the United States have phased out some types PFAS thought to be most hazardous. But the chemicals are not banned, and companies continue to manufacture other types of PFAS whose health risks aren't known. The EPA has set advisory levels, which are unenforceable, for only two of the thousands of PFAS compounds.
Whitmer’s proposed contamination limits for public drinking water systems would help protect communities against seven compounds. While generally applauded by environmentalists, some have raised concern that her proposals would only address a handful of the PFAS.
Michigan’s science advisory workgroup acknowledged other PFAS compounds are likely to have similar effects as the ones Whitmer proposes to regulate. But the workgroup said it lacked enough information to recommend health-based limits.
For other unregulated PFAS compounds, “additional monitoring, research for potential sources, notification of the public, and efforts to reduce exposure are warranted,” the work group wrote in a June report developed for the PFAS Action Response Team.
Michigan’s response, however belated, is being closely watched nationally because many experts believe PFAS contamination could soon become a national crisis. The nonprofit Environmental Working Group has tallied around 610 locations in 43 states where PFAS have been found. The group wrote when announcing their findings: “The known extent of (PFAS) contamination ... continues to grow at an alarming rate, with no end in sight.”
The precautionary principle
From survivors of the PBB crisis to the new activists of the PFAS crisis, nearly all affected asked one question: Why do we let this happen in the first place?
“We shouldn’t be developing chemicals that we don’t know what they’re going to do. Don’t develop this ... with the idea, ‘Oh we’ll find out if it’s poisonous later, after it poisons you,’” said Wynn-Stelt, one of the affected residents in Belmont and a leader of a new community group providing the EPA input on remediation efforts.
“We don’t do that with medication, we don’t do that with cars. So I don’t know why would we do that with chemicals that we put in the world. Those need to be scrutinized just like it was a pill your kid was going to take.”
Wynn-Stelt is suggesting what environmental scholars call “the precautionary principle.”
Advocates of the precautionary principle argue that regulators should shift the burden of proof: Chemicals should be proven safe before use, rather than proven dangerous afterward. Scientists who support this practice compare it with the doctor’s oath — first, do no harm.
We shouldn’t be developing chemicals that we don’t know what they’re going to do. Don’t develop this … with the idea, ‘Oh we’ll find out if it’s poisonous later, after it poisons you.’ ”
– Sandy Wynn-Stelt of Belmont, leader of a community group that formed in response to PFAS contamination
Ed Lorenz, a professor emeritus of history and political science at Alma College who has studied the PBB crisis in St. Louis for decades, and other proponents of the precautionary principle argue that a thriving economy doesn’t necessarily have to be predicated on risks to human health.
“It’s false economic development to think that producing a contaminant that’s going to cause generational problems… is somehow the type of economic development we need. We don’t need that kind of economic development,” Lorenz said, adding that federal policy would make the biggest difference and would help stem the problem of pushing businesses to other, less-regulated states.
The European Union incorporates the precautionary principle in its chemical regulations. In 2007, it adopted a policy known as REACH that puts the burden on chemical manufacturers to prove their products are safe.
A 2016 European Commission report concluded that REACH has a “minor negative impact on the competitiveness of the EU industry” compared to outside countries, though some regulated companies interviewed for the study identified benefits of the policy — including more transparency within the industry and across supply chains.
“At least one case company considers that complying with REACH can be used to brand its products as environment-friendly in other markets,” the report said. A 2005 European Commission study estimated that REACH would yield up to €50 billion (about $55 billion in the United States) in environmental and health benefits over the next 25 years. The commission hasn’t yet analyzed the policy’s benefits in practice.
Judith Enck, a former regional administrator for the EPA and a fellow at Bennington College in Vermont who also indicated support for a more proactive approach to chemical regulation, said one of the challenges of the precautionary principle is that regulators often lack teeth.
“The environmental agencies just don't have the resources, they don't have the environmental cops on the beat, that the public thinks they have. And they don't have the resources to do extensive testing and monitoring,” Enck said.
Instead, she recommends that Michigan lawmakers require companies using more than a minimal amount of certain toxic chemicals to test the soil and water near their properties every year.
“This is a very pro-business initiative, because it would allow a kind of an early warning system rather than what we currently have, where contamination is released and not discovered, sometimes for decades,” Enck said.
Enck also proposed that companies would be required to post the results publicly so the community can keep tabs on what nearby businesses in their communities are releasing. She said that would protect human health and keep companies safe from legal liability later.
There are more than 40,000 chemicals used in business today. “Very few of them have been tested for health impacts,” Enck said.
That’s why she also encouraged supporting “green chemistry” research — the production of environmentally-friendly alternatives to industrial chemicals — that could help ensure safer manufacturing in the future.
Critics of the precautionary principle argue that it’s an oversimplified answer to complicated problems. They contend it may have unintended consequences, stifle innovation and halt advances that have helped society.
Besides, the basic tenets of the principle are already employed by existing law manufacturers who are committed to phasing out harmful chemicals and developing safer alternatives, said Dulmes of the Michigan Chemistry Council.
“This is a goal that we can all support and work toward, even as some prefer to focus only on the number of chemicals that have been ‘banned,’” Dulmes said.
“In fact, we believe that continuing to develop new, safer chemistries is one of the most effective ways to benefit our world.”
The chemical industry has learned much more about PFAS chemicals, phased some out, and developed ways to minimize release of the chemicals from products that are still in use, Dulmes said.
“It is certainly understandable to want to look back in hindsight and come to easy conclusions or arguments, but in reality it’s often far more challenging to understand the finer scientific points or impacts in real time, especially as we can detect ever-lower levels of chemicals,” he said.
Back in Oscoda, Tony Spaniola is relearning skills first honed as a teenager tagging along with his father during the PBB chaos.
Now 61, he’s returned to advocacy, helping start a group pushing for PFAS cleanup and regularly speaking to groups pushing for clean drinking water across the state.
His time spent with his father forever shaped his notion of how to achieve political change.
“It was just an incredible thing to see,” Spaniola said. “Power politics in action — or inaction, there was a lot of inaction for a long time.”
He recalled one trip in 1977 when the pair, along with other Michigan lawmakers, drove to New York to visit the laboratory of Irving Selikoff. He was known for discovering the adverse health effects of asbestos and had examined more than 1,000 farmers who had been exposed to PBB.
Spaniola recalled Selikoff telling the assembled policymakers that his team had discovered PBB exposure was linked to T cell damage — important immune system cells that protect against cancer.
“The whole room just went silent,” Spaniola said.
Selikoff’s testimony helped pass limits to PBB levels in beef. But he told the New York Times that the failure to reform the chemical industry would only invite future crises.
Selikoff, who died in 1992, asked:
“Will we discover 40 years from now that we have another problem like [PBB] on our hands?”
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