Michigan passes PBB health study on to Emory University


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.

In 1973, a flame retardant got mixed up with a cattle feed supplement, leading to widespread PBB contamination in Michigan. Photo: seymoursimages (Flickr)

“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.”

Michele Marcus. Photo: Emory University

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.

8 thoughts on “Michigan passes PBB health study on to Emory University

  1. My ex husband was little when his parents farm got exposed to pbb they ate the meat drank the milk all three of my children had major issues with there health only two of the 3 are living but are said to have rhyns syndrom my health is also not great neither is my ex hisother had breast cancer his father passed away I wish they would do more research I lived on that farm also after they started over from scratch but I don’t think they burned the cows just dug a big hole had to kill them unless they went for dog food who knows my ex would

  2. Mother Jones magazine has fantastic coverage of this event. You can find much of it in Google’s archives. There’s even a feature on the whistleblower. He wouldn’t talk with anybody else but the writers at MoJo. They dedicated a lot of space to this, when mainstream media wouldn’t touch it. READ!

  3. In 1976, our family lived in Sparta Mi. We moved there in 1975, I then became pregnant for our third child, who was born in March of 1976. In the winter of 1975 there were numerous “rumors” concerning something happening with the dairy cattle there. We lived a mile from a dairy farm as well. But there was no type of warning in the grocery stores about avoiding meat and dairy from local farmers.
    Fast forward to my son’s birth. We had a vegetable garden and I ate healthier than I ever had in my life. YET, my third child, a boy, was termed “underweight” baby, he weighed only 4# 3 oz, full term! Dr. said even if he was two weeks early, this was not right.
    He had undescended testicle and digestive problems. They then advised me not to breast feed, and placed him on a high fat formula called “Nutramegen”. Because of it’s cost, the county health office in Sparta was supplying it to us, and I would notice other moms ALSO picking it up as well.
    Well, he is now 34, and he had begun to have a severe weight gain beginning at 9 yrs of age, while all of us were normal or thin. No family history of obesity. At 13, his hair was beginning to thin. When I took him to a very prominent pediatrician in the Grand Rapids area, she was dismayed when I begged for a thyroid test to be done, stating that I was just paranoid about fat, being so slender myself.
    Then, he began the secondary growth thing for boys, and I would say he has hirsuitism, hair all over his back as well as front of his torso.
    His eyes are small and not like ours, everything about him is different. And I might add this: my next door neighbor at that time in Sparta? She and HER husband weren’t fat, but trim, and their first two kids as well, were downright skinny. BUT their third child, a boy, ALSO began gaining weight and got downright obese, with no obesity marked in their families either.
    When I called the Kent County Health department they said there was no study being done. I told them of my concerns. They never got back to me. Kept calling each year….nothing. Then about 20 years later I call and they say “sorry, the study and research is done”. And I’m going “HUH?” I told them I had been calling them. An they had said “no study”. I’ve been trying to get some website up or something to begin contacting and gathering info. Anyone out there know who and how to go about this? Thank you. My email add: nolalnorton@yahoo.com I’m not concerned about privacy at this time. My son is more important. Also, HIS son, of 7 years old, has developmental problems, doesn’t run right, and there’s just something not right there. Oh yes, something ELSE. They had also stated, in the Sparta Health clinic back then, that they were going to begin blood tests for those who wished to have them, and if PBB found, then CHELATION therapy. Does anyone else out there from Sparta remember this from 1976-1977?

  4. I heard about the PBB poisoning in 1974. I lived in Michigan at the time my daughter was 5, she grew up to Married a Man who lived on a dairy farm where his fathers cows were poisoned with the PBB’s , I heard he sent the Milk into the Michigan research lab for testing and it came back they said : fine your cows aren’t poisoned.. the cows kept dying getting sick , he sent another sample to Wisconsin to be tested , they wrote back kill all cows they are full of PBB’s. Michigan labs even lied to him. All the children my daughter had with the dairy farmers son were born with with blindness and dwarfs and also bone disease. Their father drank the milk of the infected cows and ate the meat. My daughter re married and her other two son’s are fine. Can’t we sue? My grandson’s will never have a normal life.

  5. What a rotten government we have. Thank you for sharing this story, I hope it spreads and is remembered throughout history. What I don’t understand is how come it was ‘accidental’ mixing the chemical into livestock feed. Pardon me but why the hell was it in the same building that livestock feed was being manufactured in? Second why was the state/government presuming ignorance over the fact for such a long time. Just believe in karma knowing that they probably ate much of the food that contained the chemical. I can only give my sympathy for those involved, I hope the best for you and I sincerely hope justice will prevail.

  6. I was 13 in 1973. I am now 52 and was diagnosed with breast cancer ~ 1.5 years ago. My sister and mother were also recently diagnosed with breast cancer. Three women on my street in Flint died in there 40’s from breast csncer. I think we have yet to truely understand the impact of this exposure. I think breast cancer rates are going to dramatically increase as the children directly exposed reach their 50’s. I was tested for bromide’s level and was high. Every one should read Dr. Brownstein’s book about Iodine.

  7. I really enjoyed this story. It was very informative. I would like to see more people engaged on this important topic.

  8. Thanks for keeping your readers informed about this disaster. It’s been very difficult to find any information about this topic over the past 30 years.

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