For more than three decades Michigan tracked the health of about 4,000 residents who ingested fire retardant chemicals accidentally introduced into the food supply.
The once robust research on polybrominated biphenyls, known as PBBs, also examined the health of the initial participants’ children. But the state is handing off the study – not because of mollified fears or chemical-free participants.
There’s no money.
“It used to be funded by places like the Center for Disease Control, National Cancer Institute, the FDA (Food and Drug Administration),” said David Wade, director of the division of environmental health at the Michigan Department of Community Health.
“But all of that funding dried up about five years ago,” he said.
The state agency is just spread too thin with other priorities, Wade said. So until August the agency is acting as a gatekeeper to the study participants as the researching and communication of PBB’s health effects on this group and their children shifts to Michele Marcus, a professor in the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University.
Emory University in Atlanta was passed the torch because it is “the natural fit for who should continue the study,” Angela Minicuci, public information officer with the Michigan Department of Community Health, said in an email.
Marcus has been studying health effects of PBB for about 15 years.
She now seeks consent from the participants to continue long-term research on the impact of the 1973 accidental mixing of the fire retardant with a cattle feed supplement. She first met some of them last August when she was given a year to round up willing participants before the state “boxes up” the records they have, she said.
At the first meeting, people were interested in understanding results of PBB research, Marcus said. People who read Michigan Department of Community Health newsletters and other materials didn’t quite understand what’s known about the chemicals’ effects.
PBBs were once produced at a Michigan Chemical Co. plant in St. Louis, Mich., and sold under the trade name FireMaster. The same plant made cattle feed supplement named NutriMaster. Bags of PBB were accidentally sent to a Michigan Farm Bureau Services feed mill in early 1973. Before the mix up was noticed a year later, livestock feed had been sent to hundreds of Michigan farms.
About 500 contaminated Michigan farms were quarantined; the state killed thousands of animals and destroyed tons of animal feed and dairy products to keep the chemical out of the food system. But people across Michigan were already contaminated with PBB, mostly at low levels. Those people from quarantined farms had the highest levels of the chemical and formed the base of participants for the now scrapped Michigan Long-Term PBB Study.
U.S. manufacturing of PBB’s was stopped in 1976.
Marcus has looked for health problems in three groups — those directly exposed, and the daughters and sons of those who were exposed.
There hasn’t been evidence to link any long-term health problems in people who ate meat or drank milk contaminated by PBB, Marcus said. There have been more breast cancer cases than expected but not enough to warrant the finding significant.
The most significant health problems have been discovered in their children, Marcus said. And as the levels of PBB go up, health problems are more prevalent.
Daughters of those who ingested high amounts of PBB have had their period a year earlier than daughters of women with no chemicals in their blood. They are also more likely to have a miscarriage.
Some sons of those who ingested high amounts of PBB have had urinary system and genital problems. There have been a “bunch of different conditions,” Marcus said, but the most common is hypospadias. That is when the opening of the urethra is on the underside, rather than at the end, of the penis.
Breast-feeding is one reason.
“PBB is stored in body fat and breast milk contains a lot of fat content,” Marcus said. “PBB is actually 100 times more concentrated in breast milk than in blood.”
Even 39 years later, fear of PBB-induced health problems hasn’t waned. A Great Lakes Echo story from 2010 remains one of the site’s most commented stories. The comments are chalk full of uncorroborated claims of health problems. Writers wonder if they are linked to PBB exposure.
It is these kinds of concerns that drive the research, Marcus said.
“A common problem has been people with a health problem that could be related (to PBB) ask a doctor, and the doctors says no,” Marcus said. “We want the cohort’s ideas, what they have noticed and what they think we should be studying.”
Her team has created a guide for doctors with information on her PBB research.
The risk of having a health problem related to PBB is dependent on the extent of a person’s exposure, Marcus said. Those who are worried can have a blood check for the chemicals and discuss the findings with their doctor.
While still interested in the people who directly ingested PBB, her research will now test reproductive function and hormone levels of their children, Marcus said.
It has been difficult tracking down the study participants, she said. The state hasn’t kept records current because of a lack of resources, she said.
“There has also been a lot of migration from Michigan … some people we’ll never be able to contact,” she said.
Much of Marcus’s research has been funded by the same agencies Wade mentioned as supporting the state health department’s earlier research: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Long forgotten by the media and people not directly affected, PBB is still important to research, Marcus said. And after 15 years of going through the Michigan Department of Community Health, she will finally have direct access to those most integral for successful research.
“It’s the people and patients who most often suggest and guide us to problems and what we should research,” she said.
If you or someone you know was involved in the Michigan Long-Term PBB Study, or feel you have PBB-induced health problems, visit Marcus’s website devoted to investigating and explaining the long-term health effects of PBB exposure.