The caller ID simply showed a long-distance number with the words “Atlanta GA” below. I fumbled to answer the long-awaited call from the PBB Registry at Emory University. I explained that no, I hadn’t called because of the recent media on the PBB poisoning of Michigan; I never knew it had even happened- it found me.
My daughter teaches a Grassroots Environmental class at her University and, being a super cool kid, sends me her class homework assignments. So of course, being a super cool mom, I do my homework. Attached to the email was the weekly reading assignment: a portion of a pdf of Wendell Berry’s 1977 “The Unsettling of America,” a view on modern agriculture and its safety and sustainability. Near the very end, as I continued to read, my heart stopped as I read of the “PBB Poisoning of Michigan” that resulted in thousands of animals being sent to mass graves and people being potentially poisoned, though, to what extent, was unknown. I immediately grabbed my phone to call my dad. I remembered hearing about how he and my mother tried to protest the burial of poisoned cows near our hometown when I was little girl. As the phone rang, I googled; by the time I left the “Hey dad, call me when you get a chance” message I had five open tabs waiting to be read. By the time he called me back I had Joyce Egginton’s book “The Poisoning of Michigan” ordered, awaiting a shipping notification.
Mio PBB burial protest 1978- Photographer Art Pietscher
Dad confirmed that I had remembered him and mom protesting poisoned cattle being buried near our hometown. They wanted the cows incinerated and were told the technology was there, but the funds weren’t. He explained the pit was one of our favorite places to go apple and berry picking in the summer and mushroom picking in the spring. “It was a place called Mount Tom near Mio”, my grandmother recalled when I called her the next morning- she remembered a neighbor was arrested in the protests.
PBB (polybrominated biphenyl) is a fire retardant that was manufactured in St. Louis, Michigan in the early 1970’s. The same plant that made PBB also made magnesium oxide, which was being added to Michigan Farm Bureau feed for cattle, sheep, pigs and chickens. The two products look similar, and because they were both packaged in stenciled brown paper bags at the time, dozens of fifty pound bags of PBB were accidently added to animal feed in 1973, and it truly was an accident. It wasn’t long after this that farmers began to notice health problems with their animals, specifically cattle—problems like stillborn calves, cows losing their healthy hides, and hooves growing elongated and curved upward. It took almost a year of frustrating and difficult research by a dairy farmer (who also happened to be a chemical engineer) by the name of Rick Halbert before anyone realized the animals were eating contaminated feed. By that time, not only had thousands of animals been contaminated, but so had Michigan’s meat, dairy, and eggs. As those products were sold within the same state, the residents, whether living on farms or in cities, were unknowingly consuming PBB.
The immediate known tragedy was that of the farmers who initially blamed themselves (and in many cases were blamed by the very organizations they relied on for help) for their animals’ poor health. Not knowing what they were dealing with, many had buried or consumed the animals as they died on their own farms. Later, quarantines were established for animals with a level at or higher than one part per million (which was the lowest level the Michigan Department of Agriculture was capable of detecting). Being quarantined meant the farmer would have his animals put down, buried with others in a separate location (the first being in Kalkaska), and have the opportunity to be compensated for the loss. The numbers of the first quarantine wave were 30,000 cattle and 1,500,000 chickens (affecting over 500 farms). Many farmers who had sick and/or dying cattle didn’t get the one part per million test results and were forced to handle putting their own animals down and burying them themselves. They couldn’t wait for the bureaucratic process of decreasing the quarantine level and couldn’t live with themselves by selling contaminated products to unknowing recipients. Something I learned about dairy farmers that I didn’t know before researching this subject is that happy cows really do make better milk. These farmers truly loved their animals, as many of them were generational farmers who had bred these perfect milk providers that became representative of their own families’ significance. Killing their cattle was like putting down a member of their own family. Without being given an official quarantine, that also meant they might never get compensated for their lost cattle and/or might not be able to financially hang on long enough to try.
With a lack of funding, lack of scientific knowledge, the length of legal processes, combined with political reaction, the quarantine levels were not decreased to 0.3 parts per million until November 4, 1974. Finally, once lower levels for quarantines were added, the state began looking for new burial sites for the additional thousands of contaminated cows, chickens, pigs. This was the reasoning the new site was chosen near my own hometown in 1977. In 1978 the massive pit lined in clay was far from welcomed.
Mio PBB burial protest 1978 roadside- Photographer Art Pietscher
People protested, even hanging effigies of Michigan’s Governor Millikin, all without result (audio is a little rough, though this video shows reminiscences of the Mio protests). It really wasn’t until the levels of PBB were lowered for determining quarantine that people in Michigan understood that PBB had been in their food and that it could cause human health problems.
Many of the farmers who had worked directly with the feed and ate their own products had already been dealing with strange illnesses. By the time information was released on the human effects of PBB, people all over the state began reporting health concerns—people who had consumed milk, eggs, and beef purchased at the grocery store, many in large cities. The September 1978 Lancet Report showed 98% of all human breast milk tested in the Lower Peninsula was contaminated by PBB and that 4 out of 5 women who had consumed Michigan products and not from quarantined farms showed PBB in their milk. PBB concentrates in breast milk in both cattle and humans. A June 1976 public hearing to potentially reduce the level to .1ppm had no results; however, a bill to reduce levels to .02ppm for testing of animals before being allowed to be sold for meat passed in October of 1977. The final resting site for the remaining refrigerated carcasses was chosen in Nevada in 1980.
Because test results commonly varied, because of unknown levels of cross contamination from returned feed with equipment that mixed new feed and contaminated soil in farms of quarantined herds, because of unknown levels of cross contamination of naphthalene (which is dangerous at parts per trillion and considered responsible for the cattle illnesses not caused by PBB) that was found in some feed and animals, the full, true extent of how many people and animals were affected will never be known. PBB and DDT were disposed of in the Pine River (warning, video contains graphic images) and in and around the St. Louis, Michigan chemical plant, both superfund sites. Per the Pine River Superfund Citizen Task Force “some health researchers believe the residents of the region have higher than expected levels of certain cancers, birth defects, and learning disabilities.” Because of factors known and unknown, the environmental affects and secondary means of exposure may never be discovered. It is believed that nearly nine million Michiganders were exposed to PBB from direct contact or contaminated food. Emory University reports the most recent tests (2012-2015) show 60% of Michiganders tested have PBB levels above the United States 95th percentile. The number of people with PBB toxicity due to environmental factors, placenta exposure, contaminated breast milk and possible genetic effects from contaminated fathers will also likely never be known. When wildlife was tested throughout the state, PBB was found in deer, bears, birds, and raccoons- just to name a few. A 2012 Detroit Free Press article reported that The St. Louis sites were preparing for a 374 million dollar superfund cleanup, while the Kalkaska site is monitored every five years, and the Mio site is checked every other year. I can’t imagine it’s possible to have the ability to determine to what extent these sites are truly contained.
I was pleasantly surprised to hear a kind and objectively honest voice on the other line of that Atlanta, Georgia call. I explained that I am healthy, that I was born in Germany, was not breast fed due to immunizations my mother was given, and lactose-intolerant, so upon our return to Michigan in 1975, I ate no milk products.
Me and my mom- our days in Germany
Dad and I in the Black Forest of Germany
However, my mother suffered from un-diagnosable muscle spasms from 1983 to 1993. My sister has a slew of strange, unexplainable medical conditions, and my brother died suddenly at the age of 13 in 1997 from what is believed to be a rare autoimmune disorder called Behcet’s Syndrome.
The Emrick kids- 1986
Both of my siblings were breast fed, and I wonder, could my niece and nephew be carrying PBB in their bodies as well?
Emory University is still actively pursuing monitoring and research on PBB levels and the long term generational effects of the toxin. Where it is true that the University research is far from well-funded, they aren’t giving up. Between grants and fundraising, these scientists have been able to continue monitoring those already in the program and also add people to the program as the funds become available. Their research goes beyond known effects and monitoring of PBB, to genetic research and working towards possible treatment. The Michigan PBB Research Registry website has several pages of information on how to sign up for testing as well as recognized possible effects from PBB, such as thyroid disorders and reproductive disorders.
To tell the entire story of the PBB poisoning is impossible in the confines of a blog post. The information in this blog is almost entirely from Joyce Egginton’s “The Poisoning of Michigan,” and I recommend anyone reading this post to read her book. Statistics and information found outside of the book are hyperlinked within the text.
It’s important to understand as much as we possibly can about how this tragedy has affected our health and the health of our ecosystem. It’s important to learn from events like this and stop being complacent in how our system works. We could spend the rest of our lives being angry, blaming those who could have- should have done more, or we can spend the rest of our lives demanding this system is changed. Michigan’s story is one of mass contamination; however, our world is TOXIC. In tiny little levels, in our drinking cups, our clothing, our food, our water and our air. We have accepted constant low-level exposure and ingestion of carcinogenic man-made chemicals because, if it’s on a shelf for purchase, it must be safe, right? Many of the chemicals we blindly use every day are banned in other countries. In our country, the toxicity of a chemical is based on the science of the manufacturer of that chemical, that’s it. No third party anything. As I tap these letters out on my computer, six of the world’s largest makers of these chemicals are merging into what they are hoping to be three politically unstoppable giants. Though it may feel fruitless to try, the next generation will want to know if we did. Protecting an economy based on corporate profits won’t do any good if we have destroyed our planet and ourselves in the process of gaining those profits.
Look forward to upcoming blogs that will discuss where those everyday chemicals are and how you can avoid them, and even possibly make some positive changes for your own health and the environment.
Audrey L Elder
Thinking Outside the Box
Mio protest photos used with permission from photographer Art Pietscher and can be seen on the MonroeTalksForum online
Blog post edited and reviewed by David W. Jackson and Kaitlyn Myer