Poisoning Michigan: Author revisits PBB crisis 30 years later

Joyce Egginton's 1980 book, republished by Michigan State University Press last year, is available in paperback for $19.95 at http://msupress.msu.edu.

The accidental poisoning of Michigan dairy cattle in the 1970s sparked the largest chemical contamination in United States history.

Nine million residents consumed contaminated meat and milk for a year after a Michigan chemical plant mistakenly added PBB (polybrominated biphenyl) — a toxic fire retardant — to dairy cattle feed, and distributed it to farms throughout the state.

In the Poisoning of Michigan — published 30 years ago — investigative reporter and author Joyce Egginton sheds light on the PBB disaster and how federal and state authorities failed to respond.

PBBs were banned in 2003, but equally toxic substitutes are still commonly used. The Michigan State University Press reprinted Egginton’s book last August to draw attention to the subject once again.

In a phone interview from her home in New York, Egginton discusses the impact of the book 30 years later and how the risk of chemical contamination is a long-lasting concern.

Q: What sparked the story?

A: “One day I picked up the New York Times and there was, way tucked on an inside page, a very insignificant-looking story placed down the bottom of the page. It talked about the fact that there had been a contamination in Michigan and that it was estimated that everybody in the state had, by this time, drunk contaminated milk and eaten contaminated meat. And I thought, immediately, why isn’t anybody taking more notice of it? So I proposed that I should go out there and write it, and I did.”

Q: What was the immediate impact of the PBB contamination?

A: “What had happened is that the whole quantity of PBB had gotten mixed in cattle feed. It was the biggest cattle feed plant in the state of Michigan and farmers from all over the state ordered their feed from there. With any sort of poison that people are slowing taking, the symptoms started appearing gradually.

“At first, it didn’t seem too bad. Then, after a few weeks or months, farmers were saying their cows were aborting and cattle were dying. Cows began looking deformed: their coats were mangy and their hoofs would overgrow. The farmers did the obvious thing of going to the Department of Agriculture and saying, ‘I’ve got a problem here. Can you help me?’

“The general view presented to them by the Department of Agriculture at that time was well, ‘You must be doing something wrong.’ Because in the early days, the symptoms that the cattle showed could have been put down to bad husbandry or poor feeding methods. Farmers weren’t talking to each other about their troubles.

“It was over a year before the state acknowledged that the problem existed. And even then, it didn’t know how to handle it. I’m not saying that in any way blaming the state of Michigan, but simply, this was something so widely outside their experience that there was no way they could know what to do. It’s like a bunch of doctors faced with a brand new disease. They started looking at the diseases they knew rather than looking for something they didn’t know.”

Joyce Egginton was a foreign correspondent for a British newspaper when she first wrote about the PBB crisis. Photo: Michigan State University Press

Q: Why was the PBB crisis underreported when it happened? Do you think it’s been covered fairly since then?

A: “Even at that time, although it was this little downpage story in the New York Times, there was nothing in any of the Detroit papers. The Grand Rapids Press started covering it very early, and did a good job. A monthly magazine called the Michigan Farmer did, but nobody else that I could see. At the beginning, it was thought to be the complaints of farmers that couldn’t be substantiated.

“It was an enormous story and no one was interested. I’m still, all these years later, amazed that that story has not been more widely told. Here is the biggest recorded contamination alone in this country — one that affected nine million people — and where have you read much about it?

“Not long after it happened, there was a story of contamination in a place up in New York state called Love Canal. It was a modern housing estate that had been built on top of an old toxic dump. Everybody had been told the dump was sealed and safe, and it wasn’t. After some years, the toxins from the dump started permeating into people’s homes and there was a high degree of illness, particularly among children.

“Now that got a lot of attention — a huge amount of attention. I reported on Love Canal. It was all contained in one place. It was easy to find people to interview because were all living in adjoining streets. They were all activists in the fight against the whole contamination issue.

“When you had come to report the Michigan story, what have you got? You got a farmer here, another farmer 50 miles away, another farmer a long drive across the countryside. I drove hundreds of thousands of miles crisscrossing Michigan, interviewing farmers. Newspapers don’t give that much time to a story. It took an awful lot of time. It wasn’t easy. Is that why it didn’t get better reported? I often wonder how many stories are easier to report get reported much better because of that.”

Q: What were the hurdles to gathering and presenting the material?

A: “I really had to learn how to report differently from the way I had been taught. This is true of any environmental reporting. As a journalist, I had been trained that once you get a story, always check it out with the authorities. Here you get a story that you go to the authorities — the Department of Agriculture and Farm Bureau — and they’re telling you, ‘Oh, look, he’s making a lot of fuss, we know about him. His farming methods aren’t that great.’

“That was a huge obstacle. It was an obstacle for me because I didn’t know about dairy farming. I studied it as hard as I could, and as quickly as I could, but I think it was an obstacle that daunted a great many journalists in the state. I always remember that the head of the Department of Public Health in Michigan saying later, several years later, this was something beyond their comprehension.

“He used the phrase: ‘We were mired in a swamp of ignorance.’”

Q: Why reissue the book 30 years later?

A: “This event in Michigan did cause PBB to be outlawed. It’s never been made since. And so there is a general reaction, ‘Well, Thank God.’ It’s caused this trouble — it’s no longer a menace.

“Now, one discovers, that what replaced PBB is a great variety of similar chemicals that are used as fire retardants without real testing on the market. They’re not tested on people and many of them aren’t even tested on animals. And they’re terribly widely used.

“This country has the highest incidents of these kinds of chemicals being found in people’s bodies. They’re used as fire retardants in practically every home. For example, it’s in the kind of foam rubber that is used in mattresses and armchairs. It’s used in carpets and drapes.

“Doing the job it’s said to do is a huge amount of overkill. OK, it’s a fire retardant but it’s poisoning people the whole time. It’s a good example of trying to come up with a preventive before you really find out what dangers the preventive can pose. I thought it’s about time to draw some more attention to that.”

Q: How would you have approached this book in 2010?

A: “In some ways, it would be easier to cover because there’s more knowledge in place. When they tried to settle this one by a lawsuit on behalf of the farmers there was no such thing as environmental law. Now, there’s more protection for the public. But the more protection is coming at the same time as the more exposure. The one is never catching up with the other.

SPECIAL FEATURE:

After the statewide PBB contamination, the chemical plant at fault, owned by a company now called Velsicol Chemical Corp., became a federal Superfund site due to contamination of a nearby river. See what an environmental policy expert has to say about its cleanup.

111 thoughts on “Poisoning Michigan: Author revisits PBB crisis 30 years later

  1. It’s called negligence and in this case “Gross Negligence,” and that is what is required for law suits!

  2. The truth is this was a disaster caused by a coincidence – The Michigan Farm Bureau mixed the fire retardant in with the animal feed. They sold both but virtually on the same day the feed and the PBB were altered from one in flake form and the other in pellet form to both being the same – completely unknown to each other – also one bag was red and the other blue and likewise one was changed so the color of the bags were the same.
    After this no insurance companies were willing to insure the Farm Bureau however realizing the incredible coincidence I wrote the liability for many years without any problems – a classic example of locking the door after the horse had bolted! Really there was no negligence on any one’s part but just a terrible coincidence.

  3. I grew up in Michigan and I remember very well when this contamination happened! I remember the meat tasting weird and even butter had a strange smell and taste. My mom said she used to throw out a lot of meat because it didn’t seem to smell right.

    Anyway, now I have a BRAIN TUMOR, an autoimmune disorder and thyroid (hypo)issues.

    My mom has had breast cancer, leukemia, and now has severe joint pain and has had her hair fall out.

    The people who did this and those who covered it up will answer to God someday. Jesus will avenge. I’m terrified of my brain tumor!!!

  4. I grew up in Michigan 12 years old in 1974, I am now 51 and have remained relatively healthy through out my life. Suddenly, I have been afflicated with Pre-lupus, joint pain, neuropathy, decreased immune system, Fibromyalgia, mouth sores with no plausible explanation, celulitis. I vaguely recalled the “milk crises and meat shortages: growing up but was too young to understand. I have spent the last 3 years of my life trying to figure out why I cannot walk – my head gets foogy and I have no resistance to anything. I have been to Rehumatologist who cannot seem to pin-point the cause. Seems to me, I may have found my answer here. This just breaks my heart – no one deserves this and someone is responsible.

  5. I was born in the 1960’s and grew up in St. Louis across the river from the Michigan Chemical/Velsicol plant. Some of my friends parents worked at the plant. But I still have to say that plant was a mess.

    I remember walking home from school one day and all of the trees were covered in a fine white powder on the upwind side. A few days later all of the leaves on that side of the trees were dead.

    There was a golf course behind my house. I was told there was a landfill under it. Large sink holes formed in the golf course; they were roped off with hazard fences. We just played around them.

    There was an old dilapidated sugar beet processing plant on the other side of town (just a few blocks away from the plant because the town is small). There was no security and the neighborhood kids played in it. It was sometimes used to store large metal drums of liquid and large brown bags on palettes. No idea what was in those or if they were at all related, but it always seemed odd to me.

    Two of my brother’s three children have developmental issues and moderate birth defects (I have no biological children). My mother had colon cancer and later died of brain cancer. There is no history of cancer in our family.

    I believe there are at least 5 separate super-fund sites in St Louis/Alma.

  6. Anyone who has concerns, particularly if you know your family may have had one of the contaminated/quarantined farms or got milk, eggs, meat directly from a farm at the time, PLEASE contact Emory University. http://pbbregistry.emory.edu/ They have the research funding to continue to study those affected in Michigan. They need as much participation as possible to continue this important work. They are working in conjunction with a group of farm families to help coordinate efforts in Michigan and also with the Pine River Task Force to follow up with people who worked at the chemical plant or live in the surrounding area. They hold public meetings several times a year in locations around Michigan to share their findings, hear additional concerns, collect blood samples to test levels.

  7. I can’t sleep and because I lived in Michigan during the PBB incident I wanted to refresh my memory of what happened. Also, because the state I now live in (North Carolina) is repealing all kinds of government protection for it’s citizens, land and water resources, I needed to remember the PBB Poisoning. We lived in Grand Rapids and there was excellent reporting in GR. As I remember the state, including our governor at the time did a good job of covering up the story for months, even though they knew what was happening. The GR TV channel 13 had a young woman reporter who did an unbelievable job of covering this story. She even confronted our governor. I wish I could remember her name now as she deserved much thanks for her persistence in getting the truth out to Michigan citizens.

  8. Just visited a site regarding this and there is a study going on with this and the person to call is Dr. Michele Marcus 1-888-892-0074.
    This site also shared that you just can’t go to the dr’s and get tested for this it has to have a sample sent to some lab.

  9. You can’t always trust the governmental agencies that are supposed to protect us. They don’t always know what’s best for us as a lot of people are finding out. They are human and they are subject to graft and corruption. You can only trust your own judgement in some matters.

  10. I have been researching this topic and found in one documentary that food was pulled from store shelves and from homes of the contaminated. Is this true? If so, did they have meat shipped in from else where and did they raise prices for Michigan residents?

    What a horrible thing to happen to people and farmers. I have read many articles and many of the comments posted and it sounds like there is so much we may never know because someone was trying to cover their rear! How sad–it cost the health of so many–and still does.

    If anyone has knowledge of what they did with the dairy and meat after they discovered the contamination–I would be most grateful to hear your story!

  11. Born and raised in Fremont michigan. My grandparents owned a farm in the 70’s. Emory university does a study on my family every so many years. They send us a kit and we send them urine samples.

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